Q 24. How are these articles divided?
A 24. Into three parts: God the Father and our creation; God the Son and our deliverance; and God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification.
Q 25. Since there is only one divine being, why do you speak of three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
A 25. Because that is how God has revealed himself in his Word: these three distinct persons are one, true, eternal God.
In today’s world, discussions about ‘doctrine’ can often be an instant turn-off to anyone who wants to talk about matters of faith. However, it is the doctrine of the Trinity that makes Christianity distinctly Christian. Trinitarian theology is a foundational part of our beliefs; it is also probably one of the most confusing. And, while certainly does not need to have a perfect understanding of the nature of the Trinity to be saved, it still is an important aspect of who we are and even how we get here.
Given it’s confusing and somewhat complicated nature, the doctrine of the Trinity has been subject to a number of false understandings and heresies over the 2,000-year existence of the Christian religion. While that may seem to be of little consequence to you and me, the work that has been done to clarify this doctrine has a direct and very real impact on what we believe about God.
Because of this, it is important that we try to clarify what it is that we believe about the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity can be summarized in seven statements:
- There is only one God
- 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
All of the creeds that we have read over the past week, all the theological jargon and other religious writings of Christianity have to do with safeguarding each one of these statements. More than that, though, they must safeguard the statement without denying any one of the other six. Some would say that this sounds like a relatively easy task, however, over the years, a number of people and groups have fallen into heresies that inadvertently or purposefully do just that.
The Athanasian Creed, which we have been a part of our reading this last week, states the Trinitarian belief structure like this:
Now this is the [universal] faith: We worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being. For the Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Spirit is still another. But the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, coeternal in majesty.
The original translation of this Creed uses the word “essence” rather than “divine being,” indicating and affirming the single ‘Godness’ of God while also acknowledging the personhood of each member of the Trinity. When we hear the word ‘person,’ we should think of an individual that is distinct from the others. Again, while somewhat confusing, this is important because we worship One God (not three Gods) in three persons (one being). Each is equally and uniquely God.
So, how has this gotten confused over the years? Here are a number of ways and at least a few reasons why they are important.
Monarchianism – Emphasizes God as being one person. It suggests that the Son and the Spirit subsist in the divine essence as impersonal attributes, not distinct or divine persons. This is an attempt to better understanding the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. However, it creates other problems in faith and understanding, specifically around the cross and the atonement. If God is one person, and God died for our sins, then God is all of the sudden not eternal, having died and been dead for three days. In addition, if it was not God that died, but rather an attribute of God, then the divinity of Christ comes into question and the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross is either lessened or completely lost.
Modalism – Suggests that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as simply different names for the same God acting in different roles. This is where we get the idea of the analogy of “water, vapor, and ice” as a description. Though well intentioned, it denies the distinct persons of the Trinity and kind of labels God as a divine being that suffers from multiple personalities. Again this is a denial of the three unique persons existing in one divine being. If God is just one person/being and He died, it denies the eternal and infinite nature of God. He cannot die. This means that either God did die, making Him vulnerable, or He did not die as Christ on the cross, meaning that the atonement and salvation purchased by the blood of Christ is invalid as He was not God and therefore a human, tainted by sin like the rest of us.
Arianism – Denies the full deity of Christ. It states that, though Jesus is the Son of God, He was created by the Father at a certain point in time, thus making Him less than the Father and subordinate to Him. Thus Jesus is not truly God and therefore not a person of the Trinity. This is an obvious error whose effects echo that of those above. We believe that Jesus is both fully God (a person of the Trinity) and fully human. He has to be both in order for His life and death to accomplish salvation. He must be fully human to live the human life, to keep the law of God, and for His death to be in the place of humans, taking the punishment we deserve. He must be fully God in order to live a sinless life and in order to be able to take on the punishment and wrath of God. If Christ is not God, all of this falls apart. Arianism also borders on the assertion that there is more than one God.
Tritheism – This is exactly like it sounds: tri (meaning three) – theism (belief in God. This asserts that Christians actually believe in three Gods. This is a direct contradiction of Scripture which speaks specifically to the fact that God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4) and the notion of monotheism, a foundational principle in all three major Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam).
One other thing that may be of some consequence to this discussion is the common argument that this doesn’t matter because you will never find the word “trinity” or specific mention of this doctrine in the Bible. While this is technically true, Scripture is repute with references to both the unity of God as well as the diversity of the persons within the divine being. The number of references to Jesus as being God as well as those referencing God the Father as God should be enough to convince us that there is more than one person in the divine being. The Holy Spirit is also mentioned and used interchangeably with the word “God” many times. Many are the suggestions of the plurality of persons within the divine being as well.
In closing, a common question comes up in this discussion, “why does this matter?” It matters for creation because, unlike the many gods of other creation mythologies, God did not need to go outside Himself to create the universe. A single person, creating the world “out of love” doesn’t make much sense as we know and understand love within relationships. God would have had to create the world to understand love or to receive love making Him fairly similar to the ancient gods of other cultures. Because God exists eternally in the Trinitarian relationship, God was able to create the universe out of the overflow of love found there, not needing something from the created order for Himself (God is self-sufficient).