One of the core tenants of the Christian faith is the concept of the Trinity; one God in three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). While the word trinity itself is not found in the Bible, the New Testament implicitly and explicitly teaches this idea (Matthew 28:19, Luke 3:21-22, John 14-16, 2 Corinthians 13:14). It is more veiled, but certainly not absent in the Old Testament. Even so, this is one of the more confusing doctrines, even to Christians. It is often pounced upon by atheists, Orthodox Jews, Muslims and others, as a reason to reject Christianity. In this article, I would like to discuss why the reality of the Trinity is actually biblical, reasonable, consistent, and yet still a beautiful mystery.
First of all, let’s start by talking about the Trinity from a logical point of view. Atheists and others are quick to point out that the concept of the Trinity is a contradiction in itself. How can there be three beings, yet one in essence? However, this statement is not a contradiction on simply logical terms. If we were to talk about the Trinity as three persons yet one person, then it would be a contradiction. But Orthodox Christianity does not speak of persons and beings in this context in the same way. Even though it is difficult for us to understand and relate to, that does not mean that it is therefore a contradiction from a pure logical standpoint (see more here).
Secondly, Jews and Muslims are among those who are quick to dispute the idea of the Trinity, proclaiming that Christians are not monotheistic (belief in one God) but polytheistic (belief in many gods). But here again, there is a basic misunderstanding. Christians do not worship three gods; they worship one God in three persons. In polytheistic religions (such as Hinduism), the gods are completely distinct and separate beings. Christians proclaim that there is only one true and living God, but existing in three persons. And while this truth is more clearly revealed in the New Testament, it can also be found, or at the very least hinted at, in the Old Testament. In fact, it is implied twice in the first chapter of the first book in the Christian and Jewish Bible. Already in the very first verse it states: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. What is lost in the English language, but clear in the Hebrew language, is that there are different words used for “God” or “Lord” in the Bible. In this instance, the word used is “Elohim.” Elohim means the “Supreme God.” The interesting thing is that while this is a singular, masculine noun, indicating “One”, it is grammatically used in the plural! Although this is often debated, it is safe to say that within the context of the Old Testament, and clearly in the New Testament, it is, right off the bat, a hint of the reality of the Triune God.
Perhaps a more obvious explanation can be found in Genesis 1:26, where it says: Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image.’ Notice the language; God (Elohim, the Supreme God or creator of the universe) said, “let us make mankind in our image.” Who is he talking to if he is only one person? Some will say he is talking to the angels, but man has not been made in the image of angels, but in the image of God himself!
Let’s take that a little further. While we are not triune persons ourselves, we can nevertheless see, even within ourselves, the image of a triune God. What makes up a person for example? Is it my physical body only? Is it only my soul or psyche (my emotions, intellect, and personality)? Is it the spirit (the life force that animates and makes life what it is)? Or is it a combination of all three? Or, take a look at the human body. The human body is made up of many distinctly different body parts, yet together these parts form one body. There is unity in this diversity; the different parts have different functions, but together they compose one body, working together in a beautiful way.
Or, let’s look at another example. In marriage, God says that two distinctly different persons, each reflecting the image of God in unique ways (Genesis 1:27), will become one (Genesis 2:24). Together, in marriage, they will become complete, rather than apart. However, that was not all; the first thing God spoke over Adam and Eve was his blessing to specifically “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). As they would “come together” offspring would be produced, forming a kind of “triune” community in which love could be expressed! Three distinct persons in one sense, yet one in another sense.
Although these two comparisons, along with any other comparisons, fall short of being perfect examples of the Trinity, they are nevertheless hints of the expression of the Trinity. In fact, it is purposeful and meaningful that there is no perfect comparison; otherwise God would cease to be God! Think of it this way; creation testifies that there is a Creator, but it is not the creator of its own being. It is merely an expression which points to a greater reality than itself. While you can perhaps recognize certain trademarks from an artist (whether in paintings, music or other expressions of art), the art does not portray all there is to know about the artist, nor does it result in knowing the artist personally. For that, you need a relationship with the artist!
This is a good place to insert another key point. If God is merely One in essence and person (again, Christians affirm he is one in essence, not three distinct “gods”), then before he created, whom did he love and express that love to? In other words, if God is truly love (not simply that he loves), as is at the core of the Christian faith, how could that have been expressed prior to creation? If God is One in person, he cannot be a God of love. It is not merely a fact that God loves; love is the very essence of his being and nature!
Here, in fact, is the Muslim problem and reality; the God of the Quran is not a God of love in the same way that the Bible speaks of God being love. In the Quran, you have to earn Allah’s love by being a good enough Muslim. However, the Bible states the exact opposite: God demonstrated his love for us in this that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8). The message at the core of the Gospel (Good News) is: God so loved the world, he gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16).
This is one “weakness” within the Islamic faith that actually results in many Muslims coming to faith in the Christian God when they come into contact with or encounter the love of God that is found and displayed in and through Jesus Christ.
Contrary to the Jewish and Muslim claim that Christians worship more than one God, it is simply not true. We affirm the declaration, or “Shema”, found in Deuteronomy 6:4: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. This was a clear call to reject the polytheism all around them. This was a call to not worship other gods or many gods. This was actually a radical and revolutionary statement made at that time.
While affirming that God is one in essence, this does not exclude the possibility of God being Triune. In fact, when you examine more closely the word “One” in this verse, an interesting reality emerges; the word used here is “Echad.” This word speaks more of unity (unified) than another Hebrew word, “Yachid”, which speaks of being one numerically or solitarily. Interestingly, “Echad” is the same word used back in Genesis 2:24, when God says in the context of marriage that: The two shall become one (Echad) flesh (see more here). Clearly, when two distinct people join together, they do not seek to lose individual personhood in order to become one person. God being “one” does not exclude logically or biblically the possibility of being three in persons while one in essence! Ravi Zacchuras, the famed Christian Apologist, once put it this way: There is unity in diversity within the community of the Trinity (watch here).
Let’s think about this another way. If God is really God, then he is not only different from us, but also lives in a different dimension altogether. If we allow the fact that there are greater possibilities in different dimensions, it may help us to at least be open to the possibility of the concept of the Trinity (see more here).
There is no doubt that the doctrine of the Trinity is difficult to grasp for finite, limited beings like us. Yet it is this mystery that in fact is part of God being God. God is eternal, self-existent, transcendent, infinite, incomprehensible, and incomparable. Even when some of the prophets in the Old Testament or John the Apostle in the New Testament see visions of God, they struggle to convey and communicate what they see. They all resort to describing God by using comparison terms such as “being like”, something we can relate to but in itself is not the actual reality (see Ezekiel 1, Revelation 4). In that sense, God is beyond us, unfathomable, yet he has revealed himself and made himself known so that we can relate to him and personally know him in relational fellowship!
Consequently, the Trinity is not a contradiction, but a beautiful mystery and a clearly revealed biblical truth. Even though this is not a complete treatise of the doctrine of the Trinity, let me close with a couple more personal and applicable thoughts. First of all, is not one of the great human pursuits, desires, needs and longings for a sense of love, belonging and community? While we are unique individuals, we crave relationships. Where does this come from and where is it ultimately found? The doctrine of the Trinity not only addresses this, but would be the answer to these questions. God, from even before creation, existed in relationship, community, fellowship and love within the Trinity. This also means that he didn’t create us in order to love or because he needed our love, but because he wanted to express and share his love outside of himself; yet proceeding from himself! It is us that are in need of his love; created to love and be loved. Our desire and longing for intimacy and fellowship can be found not only in community with other human beings, but ultimately and fully in relationship with God, our Creator himself!
Actually, there is a big difference between having knowledge of God (or the Trinity) versus knowing God personally and experiencing the reality and fellowship of the Triune God. It is this knowledge, not merely knowing about, but “knowing experientially”, that is truly the essence of eternal life or that which is truly life-giving and eternal. Jesus expressed it this way, right before his arrest and crucifixion: Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3). Paul the apostle prayed it this way: May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (1 Corinthians 13:14).
Christians can actually know the reality and fellowship of the Trinity without knowing how to intelligently articulate the doctrine of the Trinity. Nonetheless, we are to love God with not only all our heart but also all our mind (Deuteronomy 6:4 and repeated by Jesus in Matthew 22:37) and able to defend the faith, giving a reason for the hope we have with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Our faith is supernatural at its core, but it is also reasonable, intelligent and consistent and therefore it’s important that we learn to articulate the reasonableness of our faith, while experiencing the reality of our faith in fellowship with God. In regard to the Trinity, it is not logically a contradiction, and there is solid support biblically, while still being a beautiful mystery which has been revealed and can be known personally and intimately for the one who will believe and place their faith in Jesus Christ who is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). He is the true “door” through which we enter in order to truly know God. And part of what makes the knowledge of God and worship of God so worthy, is in fact the sense of wonder in the beauty and mystery of the Trinity! As a classic hymn reverently but joyfully puts it: Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty! God in three persons, blessed Trinity!