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Introduction to the Trinity

Without a basic knowledge of the Trinity (or Triune God), our understanding of the three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) will be severely limited.  In this article written August 2009, we'll briefly explore a few aspects of this essential doctrine.

Introduction to the Trinity

The traditional formula for the doctrine of the trinity is "one God, three Persons", which stresses the unity of the three Persons having one essence, or nature.  I believe the key terms to understand here are "unity" and "person".  The Scriptures do not use the term "Trinity" or give us an explicit statement asserting the doctrine; however, there are so many implications of the unity and deity of the three Persons of the Godhead, especially in the NT (the Gospel of John in particular), that we conclude the church was correct in formulating the doctrine.

Two Trinitarian Heresies

With a doctrine as complex as that of the Trinity, it is not surprising that several heresies have developed.  We should state here that a heresy is not always a deliberate or blatant falsehood, but can merely be an inadequate formulation of a doctrine.  We'll briefly define the two most common heresies, "Tritheism" and "Modalism".

Tritheistm regards the Godhead as consisting of three independent and autonomous divine beings, thus denying the unity of the Trinity.  Modalists go the other direction, upholding the unity of the Trinity, but treating the three persons of the Trinity as a single Person who has revealed Himself in three "modes" at different times throughout history.  The most common approach is that God revealed Himself as the Father in creation, as the Son in redemption, and as the Spirit in sanctification.  This is the most prominent heresy today, held by such persons as TJ Jakes and recording artists (and pastors) Phillips, Craig and Dean.  This also seems to be the position held by Paul Crouch and many of his guests on his network.  It is ironic that, calling themselves the Trinity Broadcasting Network,  many at the network appear to deny the Church's traditional position on this important doctrine.

"Unity" of the Trinity

The unity of the Trinity is sometimes referred to as "three-in-one", "three-in-oneness", or "triune".  The most well-known verse in the Scriptures regarding the unity of God is the Shema:

Hear O' Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One (Deut 6:4).

The Hebrew word used for "One" in this passage is "Echad", which gives us a sense of "unity within plurality".  By contrast, the Hebrew word for a single, solitary oneness (Yachid) is never used in connection with God's oneness.  The word Echad also occurs in Genesis 2:24 - For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one (echad) flesh.  Other uses include (in regard to the Tabernacle) the fifty gold clasps that hold the curtains together to make the tent a unit (echad) in Exodus 26; and the Lord directing Ezekiel to join two sticks, representing Judah and Ephraim, to show He would make the two kingdoms into a single (echad) nation (Ez 37).  In each case, we see the word echad used to represent a unity made up of multiple parts.

"Persons" and History of the Trinity

The meaning of the word "person" has changed somewhat over the years, so let's look at a little history.  The North African church father, Tertullian, is probably the theologian most responsible for developing the Trinitarian terminology.  One of the obstacles in the third century was that there were no words in Latin (the language of the church) which could describe the Trinity.  According to historians, Tertullian was a brilliant scholar who was responsible for coining over 500 new nouns, approximately 300 new adjectives and 200 new verbs.  Fortunately for Latin students, not all caught on, but three that did were Trinitas (Trinity), persona (person), and substantia (substance).  Tertullian introduced "substance" to express the common foundational unity of the Trinity (that which the members had in common), despite their diversity (but not independence).

The word persona (person) literally means "a mask", such a one worn by an actor in a Roman play.  During this time period, an actor might play several roles (including female parts) within the play, so he would switch masks to allow the audience to understand which character he was portraying.  So Tertullian's original meaning of "three persons" appears to include the distinct, yet related roles of each member of the Trinity.

Discussion of the role of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity was limited in the first three centuries due to the concentration of theological debates being centered primarily on the deity of Jesus.  Once this doctrine was established, debate turned to whether the Holy Spirit was "an activity, a creator, or God".  In 381, a Council at Constantinople formulated a statement describing the Spirit as " the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, and is worshipped and glorified with the Father and Son".  While the council clearly stated that the Holy Spirit should be considered equal in rank, it stopped short of using the term "God".

The phrase "proceeds from the Father" subsequently became a heated debate which became known as the filioque controversy.  In the ninth century, the western church revised the phrase to read "proceeds from the Father and the Son" (filioque is a Latin term literally meaning "and from the Son").  The eastern church disagreed in the strongest terms, and this controversy was a major part of the split between the western (Roman Catholic) and eastern (Eastern Orthodox) churches in the middle of the eleventh century.

Early in the twentieth century, theologian BB Warfield called John Calvin "the theologian of the Holy Spirit", stating that Calvin's doctrine of the Spirit "is Calvin's gift to the church".  To properly address even an introduction to Calvin's discourse on the Spirit will require a separate article, so we'll just just mention Calvin's attitude toward the doctrine.  While Calvin went to considerably precise details in his doctrine, he recognized the limitations of the Greek and Latin terms, and despised quibbling over words, stating we should "Say that in the one essence of God there is a trinity of persons; you will say in word what Scripture states and cut short empty talkativeness" (Institutes I.13.5).  Calvin also held that the exact relationship between the three Person of the Trinity is "incommunicable", that it transcends mere human words.

Perhaps Adrian Rogers said it best (not sure who originally coined the phrase) "Try to understand the Trinity and you'll lose your mind, but try to deny the Trinity and you'll lose your soul."

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