Theological Foundations: The Glorious Trinity
How familiar are you with the Trinity? I’m not asking whether you believe that God is Triune. I’m asking how often you ponder and delight in the reality that your Creator and Savior is One God in three Persons. For many of us, the doctrine of the Trinity appears too lofty and complex for us to engage. We believe it, but we’ve never sought to think carefully through the theological nuances and practical implications of this biblical teaching. In this brief article, I want to reintroduce you to the Trinity and help you see how glorious and practical this doctrine is. Let’s start in the Old Testament.
The Old Testament and the Trinity
While not giving us a detailed description and defense of the Trinity, the Old Testament provides hints that God is a plurality. The general emphasis of the Old Testament is on God’s unity, as over and over the prophets remind Israel that there is one and only one God. But even in the very first chapter of the Bible we find evidence that plurality exists within the One God. Speaking in the plural as He considers the creation of man, God says, “Let Us make man in Our own image, in Our own likeness” (Gen 1:26).
In several theophanies throughout the Old Testament we are acquainted with the Angel of the LORD who not only speaks for the LORD, but who also appears to be the LORD Himself (see Gen 22:15-16). We also learn that God of the Old Testament has a Son (Ps 2:12), whom Yahweh calls “God” (Ps 45:6-7) and that the LORD has an intimate relationship with someone who is higher in status with God’s earthly King David (Psalm 110:1). Stepping back into Genesis again, we find that (1) God creates with (2) His Word, as (3) His Spirit actively participates in the creation (see Genesis 1:1-31).
Of course, we read these Old Testament texts as Christians with the advantage of a completed canon. Nevertheless, these Old Testament passages, while not proving the doctrine of the Trinity, lay important theological groundwork upon which New Testament authors were able to build their doctrines of Christ and the Holy Spirit in a way that was fully in line with previous revelation. The Trinity is not a New Testament invention; it flows naturally out of the Old Testament.
The New Testament and the Trinity
When we come to the New Testament, we encounter a Christ who is distinct from His Father, but who is called God (John 1:1; Rom 9:5; Titus 2:13) and Lord (Acts 16:31; Phil 2:9-11), who is the Creator (John 1:2-3; Col 1:15-16; Heb 1:3-4) and who receives worship from men (John 20:28) and angels (Heb 1:6). We also find that the Holy Spirit is not only a Person, but that He also possesses all the attributes and prerogatives of God. We also find several triad formulas in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are grouped together, implying their full equality (see Matt 28:19; 2 Cor 13:14; 1 Peter 1:2). What is slightly veiled in the Old Testament is now fully revealed in the New: God is One Being in three Persons.
Church History and the Trinity
Immediately after Christ’s ascension, the first-century Church found itself confronted with heresy. Teachers crept into the Church and sought to undermine vital Christian doctrine with subtlety and sophistication. The Person of Christ was the primary area of attack in the first few centuries of the Church’s existence, so theologians labored in the Scripture through preaching, teaching, writing, and debate to fortify core doctrines. The early Christian creeds are the fruit of these labors and evidence of the Spirit’s work to establish a clear theological consensus for the stability and blessing of the Church.
What is the consensus? It is that the Bible presents God as One Being, existing in three distinct Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each Person of the Trinity is fully God and possesses all the attributes of God, shares fully in the Being (or Essence) of God, and is dependent on no other source for His existence. Church history also teaches us that if we drift too far in either direction—emphasizing God’s unity at the expense of God’s plurality or God’s plurality at the expense of His unity—we will fall into error. In order to maintain biblical and theological balance, we must confess with equal emphasis that God is One Being in three Persons.
Worship and the Trinity
But the doctrine of the Trinity is more than just a theological affirmation. The Trinity is a Living Reality that permeates every aspect of our personal and corporate life. The Father planned our salvation, the Son fulfilled the necessary requirements of our salvation, and the Holy Spirit applies the benefits of the Son’s work to us. As we’ve already noted, each member of the Trinity— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is fully God Himself, so every member of the Trinity is worthy of worship and praise.
Nevertheless, the New Testament often presents a particular order: we worship and pray to God the Father, in the name of God the Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit (see Phil 3:3). This is only a general pattern, however, for the Son receives worship (Matt 2:2, 8) and prayer (Matt 9:38), and the Spirit receives prayer as well (2 Cor 13:14: “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit”). We don’t find any instances of direct worship of the Holy Spirit, however. This lack of direct worship of the Spirit is not due to His divine status—He is equal in deity to God the Father and God the Son and worthy of worship. But His role within the Trinity is to exalt the Father and the Son, not Himself.
It’s stunning to realize that within God there is a kind of love where each Person selflessly seeks the glory of the Other. The Father creates the world and plans redemption in order to glorify the Son (Phil 2:9-11). The Son gladly lays His life down for the glory of the Father (John 7:18). And the Spirit works behind the scenes in order to bring glory to both the Father and the Son (John 16:14). When we think of worship, then, we must immediately think of how we, as God’s creatures, can express these glorious realities in our own lives. At basic, the Trinity shows us how to live for the glory and benefit of others, even when it is most costly to our own lives and reputations.
Apologetics and the Trinity
For complex historical-theological reasons, the Church in the West has come to view the Trinity more as a logical conundrum to be defended than a glorious Being to be worshipped. Because of this, Christians have come to believe that the Trinity is a topic we should avoid in our evangelistic encounters. It is high time we reverse this trend. The New Testament speaks unashamedly about the nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and so should we. Actually, because it is true, the doctrine of the Trinity provides us with effective apologetic resources that help us undermine non-biblical worldviews.
Take Islam for example. Islam begins with Allah, a solitary deity, and explicitly rejects any notion that God is a Trinity (see Qur’an 4:171). But this conception of a solitary deity wholly undercuts any doctrine of creation that Islam might propose. Because Allah is a monad, there is no basis in Allah for the creation of relational creatures. Logically, all that a solitary being can create is more solitary beings that have no ability to relate to each other. Islam, therefore, cannot account for humans who are inherently and inescapably social beings.
The Trinity, however, is a community of eternal relationship. The Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit have enjoyed fellowship with each other for all eternity. The creation of human beings as relational creatures, therefore, flows naturally from God’s very nature. God does not create in order to supplement a deficiency in His Being (“I just really need some company in this dark and dreary eternity”); He creates out of the overflow of who He is as Triune God. An Islamic doctrine of God has no basis for relationship and, therefore, no basis for love.
Drawing out the deficiencies of Allah while depicting the glories of the Trinity will prove a powerful witness to Muslims. Besides, this is a divinely-sanctioned apologetic approach: “To whom will you compare me,” God once asked Israel (Is 40:25). The solitary deity of Islam can’t hold a candle to the Triune God of the Bible.
The doctrine of the Trinity is not only central to the Christian faith; it is central to the Christian life. There are endless riches to be enjoyed as we meditate on God’s nature as One in Three and Three in One, and countless practical implications for our day-to-day walk. My prayer is that this brief article has refocused your attention on the God of the Bible in the fullness of who He is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.