The Heart of It All: The Trinity (Part 3)
May 31, 2011
by Peter Amsterdam
The Heart of It All: The Trinity (Part 3)
Audio length: 19:08
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(For an introduction and explanation regarding this series overall, please see The Heart of It All: Introduction.)
As we’ve seen in part 1 and part 2 of the doctrine of the Trinity, it is not a simple doctrine to understand; some parts of it are incomprehensible to our natural reasoning, and as such, it is a mystery. Though it can’t be fully understood, it is nevertheless true.
Christian philosopher Kenneth Samples states: “Even though the Trinity doctrine is not fully comprehensible to the finite human mind, what Christians believe about the doctrine is clear and distinct in the church’s creeds and statements of faith. The truth of this doctrine, however, can only be clearly and cogently communicated if believers take seriously their responsibility to study and show themselves approved (2 Timothy 2:15).”
Despite its mysterious nature, we find ourselves at times needing to explain the doctrine of the Trinity as we witness or teach others who wish to grow in the faith.
Analogies for the Trinity
When Christians find themselves in a position where they need to explain the Trinity to someone, one of the most common means of explanation is to liken it to something familiar through using analogies. You might say, “The Trinity is like …” and then include a comparison that helps to explain the Trinity in terms that are relatable or familiar. This can be a fairly good way to explain it in simple terms, though there are some difficulties in using analogies. While analogies have similarities to the Trinity, they don’t fully or accurately explain it, and some of them, while seemingly good explanations on the surface, can contradict with the doctrine.
I felt it might be helpful to mention some of the more commonly used analogies, in case you ever find yourself in a situation where you may need to use one of them in explaining the concept of the Trinity. It’s also helpful to know the flaws of the different analogies so that you can be careful when using them to explain the doctrine.
One example is the popular analogy that the Trinity is like water, which in different states can be ice (a solid), water (a liquid), and steam (a gas). All three are different, but the same substance. While this seems to be a good analogy at a basic level, its flaw is that water can only be in each of those states in succession. It cannot be in all three states at the same time. Another example is the egg analogy: just as an egg consists of three things—the shell, the yolk, and the white, which together make an egg—so God consists of three Persons in one entity.
Both of these analogies offer certain likenesses to the Trinity, yet they have a major weakness. The water analogy expresses modalism, which professes that the Persons of the Trinity are not distinct from one another, but rather are only different manifestations of God. The egg analogy shows three parts making up a whole egg; however, none of the parts individually is the whole entity, the egg. Whereas in the Trinity, each part—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is God and is of the same essence.
There are analogies based on relationship ideas, that the Trinity is like a family, or a society; or like a man who is a father, a son, and a husband, and thus three persons in one. There are those analogies which have to do with the nature of the mind—the intellect, memory, and will. Others use concepts drawn from the natural world, like a mountain with three peaks rising from the same base, or an apple with its skin, pulp, and core, or the three-leaf clover. Others liken it to the dimensions of height, width, and length.
All these popularly used examples are likenesses or analogies which, while they cannot fully explain the doctrine, can be helpful as tools to express a relatable similarity to the Trinity. So they can be helpful in witnessing to others at a basic level. But they don’t portray a fully accurate representation, and in a challenging discussion or debate with someone who is knowledgeable, they won’t hold up as showing the full truth of the Trinity. Analogies can be helpful at a basic level, but they have their limitations.
However, even though there are no analogies that are completely accurate, nor do any explanations of the Trinity bring total comprehension of the doctrine, this doesn’t mean that the Trinity cannot be apprehended by our God-given understanding. I like the explanation that Christian theologian Robert M. Bowman Jr. gave when addressing the issue of the finite human mind comprehending the Trinity: “To say that the Trinity cannot be understood likewise is imprecise, or at least open to misinterpretation. Trinitarian theologians do not mean to imply that the Trinity is unintelligible nonsense. Rather, the point they are making is that the Trinity cannot be fully fathomed, or comprehended, by the finite mind of a man. There is a difference between gaining a basically correct understanding of something and having a complete, comprehensive, all-embracing, perfect understanding of it. The way many other theologians would express that difference is to say that the Trinity can be understood, or ‘apprehended,’ but not ‘comprehended.’”
C. S. Lewis also addressed the issue of comprehending the Trinity in his book Mere Christianity. He states: “On the Divine level, you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being … Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube.
“When thinking about the Trinity, we should not think it is an impossible contradiction or bad math (1+1+1=1). Thinking this way assumes we can comprehend God in the same way that we comprehend humans and human relationships. God is incomprehensible to an extent. After all, we are talking about the eternal Creator.”
Early Christian Creeds
In an attempt to provide clear doctrinal teachings and definitions for all believers, a number of what were referred to as “creeds” were articulated in the early eras of church history. These served both as a declaration of faith and a statement of the doctrine for the believers.
In the last article about the Trinity, reference was made to one of the most important of these creeds, the Nicene Creed. This creed was the work of the first ecumenical council, a council consisting of bishops from the whole Christian church of the day. This council was convened by the Emperor Constantine in 325 AD to deal with the question of Arianism. The man who led the argument against Arius was named Athanasius, a twenty-nine-year-old who was a secretary to the bishop of Alexandria. A few years later he became the bishop of Alexandria.
Even though the council agreed with Athanasius, issued the Nicene Creed, and condemned Arianism, the controversy continued until another ecumenical council, the Council of Constantinople in 381, reaffirmed the Nicene Creed and made a few additions to it. After that, Arianism began to lose favor and basically died out.
Creeds, such as the Nicene Creed and the earlier Apostles’ Creed, were memorized and recited in churches and in fellowships as a means of educating members in Christian doctrine and belief. The Nicene Creed is still taught and recited in many churches today. The version that is quoted today includes the few changes added by the Council of Constantinople. It also includes an addition known as the filioque clause, added to the creed much later. Filioque, which means and the Son in Latin, was added to the line that previously said that “the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father.” It now says “the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
Following is the Nicene Creed with some commentary in italics, to point out the specific Trinity points and how they are precisely worded.
The Nicene Creed, also known as the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Creed
(The words in italics are mine, in way of explanation.)
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (showing the Son existed before creation), God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made (The Son is God of God, begotten, not made; one substance with the Father, meaning the Son has the same essence, the same divine nature and is equally God, and that He wasn’t made or created by the Father, as Arius claimed.); who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And He shall come again with glory to judge both the quick (living) and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son (the filioque clause, which was added later), who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. (Catholic in this case means universal, or the overall community or church of Christians, not the Roman Catholic Church.) We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Another creed which gained usage in the 400s was the “Athanasian Creed,” which, though not thought to be written by Athanasius, affirms the beliefs of the Doctrine of the Trinity. The Athanasian Creed very precisely lays out various points of the Doctrine of the Trinity. I’m including only those points which touch on the Trinity, so this is not the full creed. If you are interested in reading the full creed, you can find it here.
Excerpts from the Athanasian Creed
3. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
4. Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
5. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
6. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
7. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.
8. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
9. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
10. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.
11. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
12. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.
13. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.
14. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.
15. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;
16. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
17. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;
18. And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.
19. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;
20. So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say, There are three Gods or three Lords.
21. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.
22. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.
23. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
24. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.
25. And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.
26. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.
27. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
The Church Fathers and their legacy
The church fathers of the first four centuries worked to find the right technical words to articulate this doctrine. As stated in part 2 of the Trinity, the development of the doctrine and its wording came gradually, often when the inherent truth of the doctrine was challenged by someone making false claims against it. The early church fathers, a number of whom were martyred for their faith, were the pioneers of Christian doctrine and theology, and deserve our gratitude for bearing the responsibility they were given in articulating the doctrines of the Christian faith of which we are beneficiaries today.
In this day and age, with massive information at our fingertips, it’s hard to imagine it taking hundreds of years to work out such a doctrine, but those centuries were very different from today. Books weren’t readily available; printing hadn’t yet been invented, and all books were duplicated by hand. Travel was slow, by foot or by horse, donkey, or camel, or by boat. Communications were as slow as transportation.
Also, Christians underwent persecutions during those centuries. Not all the persecutions were equally severe, but they were at least disruptive and at times resulted in the death of believers, including some of the apostles and later church fathers. There were ten major periods of persecution against Christians, starting in about 64 AD under the emperor Nero, and culminating in the great persecution under the emperor Diocletian lasting from 303–311 AD, during which the Christians were killed in the arenas for amusement.
It wasn’t until after Constantine became emperor and issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD that Christianity became legal and the persecutions stopped. This made it possible for church leaders to gather, such as during the Council of Nicaea, to work out issues in counsel together. We, as Christians today, can be thankful for such diligent men—the church fathers of those centuries, and men of faith in later centuries as well—for having the will and determination to work hard to find the language and terminology and to work through the theology, so that today we have a much greater understanding of the foundations of our faith.
P.S. If you wish to study more about the doctrine of the Trinity, you might want to listen to the classes of William Lane Craig, “The Doctrine of the Trinity.” You can find them at his website.
Another source for further study on the doctrine of the Trinity is Kenneth Samples’ print series, which can be found here.
Summary of “The Trinity” articles:
- Christians believe that there is only one God. The doctrine that explains the concept of how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God is called the doctrine of the Trinity.
- God has always existed as three persons in one being. Each of the persons is fully God, having all of the attributes and the complete essence of God.
- There are Old Testament verses which infer that there is more than one person in God. But it was in the New Testament that the truth of the Trinity was revealed. (Although the word Trinity doesn’t appear within the biblical text, Scripture reveals the doctrine.)
- The Trinity was summarized by Augustine in seven short statements:
- The Father is God.
- The Son is God.
- The Holy Spirit is God.
- The Father is not the Son.
- The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
- The Holy Spirit is not the Father.
- There is only one God.
- In the third and fourth centuries, a number of misinterpretations arose regarding the Trinity. Thus the council of Nicene convened, and sought to express in technical language the correct concepts of the Trinity. These are expressed in a formal declaration called the Nicene Creed.
- There are a number of commonly used analogies, which, while they cannot fully explain the doctrine, can be helpful as tools to express a relatable similarity to the Trinity.
- The concept of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being one God is impossible for us as humans to completely understand. The important things are to know that there is one God, that there are three Persons in God, that God loves you and Jesus died for your salvation, and that the Holy Spirit is with you as a helper and counselor.
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).
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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.
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Samples, Kenneth, Without a Doubt—Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions, Baker Books,1984.
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Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology, Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
 Kenneth Samples, The Trinity: One What and Three Whos, 2007.
 Robert M. Bowman Jr., Orthodoxy and Heresy: A Biblical Guide to Doctrinal Discernment. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., p.162.
 In 1054 the filioque clause was added to the creed. This brought about the schism or division between the western church with its base in Rome, and the eastern church with its base in Constantinople. The two branches, the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches, remain split today. The split was caused mostly because the clause was added by the Roman Catholic pope without consultation with the Eastern church.