The Doctrine of the Trinity Is Not About A Word

A few years ago I gave a talk to a popular audience on the doctrine of God. During the question and answer period a questioner ask, “Would you explain the Trinity?” The audience laughed. I replied that I find the doctrine of the Trinity quite simple and would be happy to answer his question. For today’s post I will share my understanding of this simple doctrine. Let me begin with two preliminary qualifications.

(1) The doctrine of the Trinity is not about a word. The Greek word “Trinity” (trias) was first used to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the late 2nd Century. The word “Trinity” was not used in the New Testament, and some people turn this absence into an argument against the substance of the doctrine that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They seem to think that the whole issue turns on what word you use. If the word “Trinity” were that important to the doctrine, surely the Nicene Creed (381), the definitive statement of the Trinitarian faith for nearly all Christian churches, would have used it. It did not. The debate about the Trinity addresses the question, who is God? Or more precisely who is the God we meet in Jesus Christ and the Spirit who raised him from the dead? The name “Trinity” is simply a shorter way of saying the name “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), into which we are baptized.

The real question of the Trinity is this: is it proper for Christians to believe and confess that the word “God” means Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Gregory Nazianzus (A.D. 329-89), Patriarch of Constantinople and one of the chief defenders of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity says it this way:

But when I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For Godhead is neither diffused beyond these, so as to bring in a mob of gods; nor yet is it bounded by a smaller compass than these, so as to condemn us for a poverty-stricken conception of deity, either Judaizing to save the monarchia, or falling into paganism by the multitude of our gods. For the evil on either side is the same, though found in contrary directions.  This then is the Holy of Holies, which is hidden even from the Seraphim, and is glorified with a thrice repeated Holy, meeting in one ascription to the title Lord and God (Oration 38, 8).

(2) The doctrine of the Trinity is not a speculative doctrine that claims intellectual comprehension of God’s essential being. The church fathers who articulated the Nicene Creed were well aware that God dwells in unapproachable light and that no one has seen God. God’s essence is incomprehensible by any being other than God. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is a protective formula whose only claim to truth is that it faithfully summarizes the revelation of God made in Jesus Christ. Only God knows God. Hence only God can reveal God. The Son knows God and can reveal God (Matthew 11:27). The Spirit knows “the deep things of God” and can reveal the “thoughts” of God (1 Corinthians 2:11-12). In sum, the doctrine of the Trinity aims not to comprehend “the deep things of God” but to restate the truth of divine revelation in a compressed formula that protects the faithful from one-sided interpretations of the scriptures.

The doctrine of the Trinity arose in three stages. First, Jesus and his disciples confessed the one God and the Christian church never revoked this confession. There is only one God. However once Jesus had risen from the dead and was confessed as Savior and Lord and the Spirit had been poured out on the church, it became obvious that the one God acts for our salvation through his Son Jesus Christ and in his Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the revealer of God and the Spirit sanctifies us and unites us to God. The Christian experience of salvation and communion with God involves three who act as one. We are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We pray to the Father through the Son, in the power of the Spirit. Everywhere you turn in the Christian faith, ritual, and practice we find the three united in one. Thomas Torrance calls this stage “the evangelical Trinity” (The Christian Doctrine of God).

Second, Christian experience and faith raise questions that demand explanation. At this stage, the church recognizes that the work of Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and Revealer and the work of the Spirit as Revealer, Sanctifier, and Giver of life can be accomplished only by God. God acts in the economy of salvation and revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit. In relating to Jesus and the Spirit, we are relating to the true God. When we are united to Christ we are united to God. When we are touched by the Spirit, we are touched by God. In the economy of salvation and revelation we relate to the Father as God, to Jesus Christ as God, and to the Holy Spirit as God. Torrance calls this stage “the Economic Trinity.”

The third stage moves to the ontological or immanent Trinity. The truth of Christian faith and practice depends on the saving and revealing work of Jesus Christ and the sanctifying and life-giving work of the Spirit (the first stage). And the validity of the work of Christ and the Spirit depends on the divine character of that work (the second stage). The final stage asserts that God is triune not only in the economy of revelation and salvation but in God’s own eternal life. Unless God really is Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal truth, we could not receive the revelation and salvation in Christ and the Spirit as a real revelation of the Christ-character of God, of the love of God, of the real presence of God. There might be a different God hidden behind the masks of Christ and the Spirit. The doctrine of the immanent Trinity simply states that what God reveals himself to be for us in the economy, God is in his own eternal life. It is not speculative, and it’s not complicated.

The three stages stand or fall together. If we think God might not really be Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal truth, we would have cause to doubt that God is really at work or genuinely revealed in Christ and the Spirit; and if we doubt that God is really at work and revealed in Christ and the Spirit, would have cause to doubt our salvation, our union with God and our sanctification.

John dealt with similar doubts in his own context in the First Century. And his answer is similar to the one the church eventually gave in the doctrine of the Trinity:

We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life (1 John 5:20).

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8 thoughts on “The Doctrine of the Trinity Is Not About A Word

  1. Ronald Cox

    It would be even clearer if Gregory used the Oxford comma. Just saying. (Thanks Ron – this is indeed an helpful post!)

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  2. nokareon

    I’d like to get your take on two Trinity-relevant phenomena in (at least American) church culture, both of which may represent significant misunderstandings:

    1) The widespread use of the term “God” to refer interchangeably only with the person of the Father in particular. Prayers like the following are not uncommon around Easter time and reveal this fact: “God, thank you for sending your Son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins and for sending your Spirit to indwell us…”

    2) The less frequent, but still notable, portrayal of the Spirit as identical to the scriptures. On the wall of the gymnasium in my private, Christian school growing up was a woven tapestry with four quadrants. The top left showed a bright light, radiating outwards, that read “And God said, Let there be light.” The top right showed the cross of Christ on Calvary, reading “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotton Son.” The bottom right showed a praying modern believer on a hillside, reading “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But the bottom left, what I understood to be emblematic of the Holy Spirit, showed an open Bible, reading “For all scripture is God-breathed.” I can actually think of several schools of churches, usually ones that have been influenced by or associated with the Baptist denomination, that portray imagery via stained glass, painting, or tapestry that has sections clearly corresponding to the Father and to Jesus, and the third section which would seem to be linked to the Spirit portrays an open Bible, sometimes with the image of a dove going down into it.

    Why do Christians sometimes fall into one of the two above behaviours? What sociological and theological significance do these trends have? I wonder if you might have further comment—thanks as always for a great post, Dr. Highfield!

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  3. ifaqtheology Post author

    As for the first practice, it follows the dominant biblical pattern. A good example is Ephesians 4: 4-6 There is …one Spirit…one Lord….one God and Father of all….” And 1 Corinthians 8:6: “yet for us there is but one God, the Father…and one Lord Jesus Christ….” The church fathers and later theologians explained that the word God is used of the Father in this way because the Father is the “fountain” or “source” or “cause” of the godhead. Though the Son and the Spirit are eternally begotten and breathed and they are God from God, nevertheless, they do not have the same relation in the godhead. Some theologians, mostly western, are uncomfortable with this and consider all three as sharing in the source. All three are the “monarchia.” In my view, unless the modern practice to which you refer is use to argue that the Son and the Spirit are not God or are lesser gods, it is innocent. But perhaps we should explain it a bit more.

    The second practice of identifying the HS with the Bible occurs among biblicists of all kinds. There is a negative reason and a positive one for this image. On the positive side, the Spirit is considered to be the author of the scriptures. The prime work of the Spirit is considered to be revealing and preserving the saving truth God wants communicated to humankind. The Bible is that deposit of truth and represents the sum of the Spirit’s work. The negative side is that biblicists often down play the mysterious and miraculous work of the Spirit. The “Word of God” is rational speech. The Bible is the word of God. And thinking of the other (mysterious) work of the Spirit seems to open the door to all sorts of irrationality. I think those are the main reasons for the images to which you refer.

    Thanks! Good to hear from you!

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  4. edwardfudge

    Ron, Thank you for this article, which is the clearest and most helpful piece as addressed to “regular” folks that I have ever seen. God bless you, my friend. Cordially Edward

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  5. Doug Roberts - Rice '60

    I see you and your wife came and had a visit with Harold and Carol Ann at their new abode. I have been trying to keep up with you on your Commentries, I am still stuck on the Trinity. This subject has been of great interest to me after read Barton W. Stone. I have a third view I am working on besides the current popular approach and Stone’s position.
    When I have completed a draft I would like to share it with you for your critique.

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    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Yes. I’d like to see it. It seems to me that at least some of the anti (or non) Trinitarian thought in the Stone-Campbell Movement arises, not because of anti-supernatural rationalism, but because a sincere but (in my view) naive biblicism that thinks all theological questions can be solved by looking at what the texts say on the surface. Perhaps the mystery of God in Christ is much more profound than be captured by any formula. In that case, our quest would be to protect that mystery and not allow a simplistic approach of any kind destroy the mystery. In my view, as I said in the essay, the outcome of the trinitarian and Christological debates is about as good as one could hope for. But I am always open for other ways to preserve the mystery. Blessings.

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