“Trinitas” was coined by Tertullian and is translated as Trinity in our day. Since the beginning of Christianity the doctrine of the trinity has been under fire and in this we are seeing more and more old heresies coming back from the dead in attempts to take down this doctrine all over again. In these days it is critical to understand this doctrine, it’s development, and why it even exists so that we can defend firstly, the glory of the one true God, secondly the integrity of scripture, and finally a doctrine that is based off of those two other principles. Without further ado, let’s begin.
I. The Origin of the Doctrine
II. The Foundations of the Doctrine
III. Misinterpretations of and Heresies against the Doctrine
I. The Origin of the Doctrine
It is no secret that the concept of the trinity is impossible for us to grasp as human beings. This is a brilliant starting point when talking about the doctrine of the trinity since we are incapable of understanding the nature of God as fully as we would like. Augustine of Hippo made a point in his treatise “On the Trinity”, “Si comprehendis non est Deus.” Or rather, “If you can grasp it, it isn’t God. Let us rather make a devout confession of ignorance, instead of a brash profession of knowledge.” Augustine also made a point that it is simpler to know what God is not in regards to such topics as the trinity. A confession of my own is that while I have studied the doctrine of the trinity, I only understand it in so much that I am comfortable with my inability to comprehend it. Basically, I understand it as much as I need to and press forward.
On the origin of the Trinity, the doctrine was formed organically as time went on throughout church history. Ultimately, the doctrine of the trinity was a means by which we could understand who Jesus was. It is in Christology then that we see the doctrine of the trinity formed. In most cases that the doctrine of the trinity is rejected we notice that the divinity of Christ is also rejected. Without the immediate acknowledgement of Christ’s divinity in the church it would surely be without a doctrine of the trinity. It is in understanding how Jesus is of the same substance as God, as shown throughout scripture, that the trinity came about. Ultimately, to understand the monotheistic teachings of the scriptures alongside the divinity of Christ was to recognize God as revealed completely in the entirety of scripture. It is to be said, contrary to many people’s beliefs, that the nature of God as described by the doctrine of the trinity is revealed throughout the Old Testament as well, however, we will arrive there later. This is particularly difficult for groups who deny Christ’s divinity for when you show the divinity of Christ in scripture, it brings about a polytheistic religion due to their denial of the trinity. McGrath (2011) states it best, “The doctrine of the Trinity can thus be seen as an attempt to describe faithfully a God who, while remaining transcendent, also became incarnate in Christ – and, more than that, now indwells believers in the Holy Spirit” (p. 236).
After the organic consensus of this doctrine emerged, the ultimate development was in the attempts to understand how three persons can be distinct and one simultaneously. This theological and philosophical struggle began within the first two centuries of A.D. or C.E. It was Justin Martyr, who was one of the more popular theologian/apologists, who “stressed the unity of essence between the Word and the Father and used the imagery of the impossibility of separating light from its source, the sun. In this way they illustrated that, while the Word and the Father are distinct, they are not divisible or separable” (Erickson, 2001. p. 111).
II. The Foundations of the Doctrine
Whenever it comes to the foundations of the Doctrine of the Trinity things can get complicated. The basis for the foundation is scripture alone, but the doctrine has a lot that is considered. In fact, in some ways the word “trinity” simplifies how much is actually occurring within this doctrine and this is why many who reject the trinity end up having their theology lacking in some other way. There are three factors to look at when considering the Trinitarian view.
Factor #1: The Oneness of God
This is the easiest aspect when looking at the trinity. In fact, it is hardly disputed as it is the claim of monotheism, that there is only one God. It is such a straight forward part of this that I am refraining from spending too much time on it. When it comes to the scriptures most agree that there is only one God and even modalists agree that there is a oneness of God. An often quoted verse is Deuteronomy 6:4, “The Lord our God is one Lord.” The point being that Trinitarians, contrary to popular belief, believe in one God.
Factor #2: The Deity of Three
Complications arise, typically, at this point. The conflict doesn’t begin with the Father as the deity of the Father is quite clear (1 Corinthians 8:4, 6; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; 2 Peter 1:17). Instead, as I mentioned in the Origin section, the issues arrive at the deity of Christ.
The deity of Christ is a special topic, for a separate post, and cannot be placed lightly or casually in this post. I will be going into this topic next as a follow up to the trinity, but for the sake of the point of this post I will press forward by stating the position that Jesus is both fully man and fully God, which is often referred to as the Hypostatic Union. In addition to stating the basic premise, so that this portion isn’t completely empty, consider Philippians 2:5-11 in which the Greek term morphe (rendered “form”) means, “the set of characteristics which constitutes a thing what it is.” As Erickson (2001) continues on this point, “Denoting the genuine nature of a thing, morphe contrasts with schema which is also generally translated “form”, but in the sense of shape or superficial appearance rather than substance” (p. 108).
The third deity being the Holy Spirit, which is contested by some. In Acts 5:3, when Peter inquires of Ananias about his financial contribution to the church Ananias lies. In this instance Peter charges Ananias with lying to the Holy Spirit, and in verse four we see Peter charging Ananias with lying to God. Instead of denying that the Holy Spirit is God, most say that the Holy Spirit is in fact just a force or energy of God. This notion is easily debunked in scripture as 1 Corinthians 2:10-11 shows us that the Holy Spirit has thoughts, Ephesians 4:30 shows that He has emotions, and in 1 Corinthians 2:11 we learn that the Holy Spirit has a will. While this is hardly exhaustive, it is quite conclusive when it comes to taking away the idea that the Holy Spirit is merely a force since a force or energy doesn’t have thoughts, emotions, or a will, but instead a person has these things.
Factor #3: Three-in-Oneness
Based on the first two factors we can begin to see where the church’s development of this doctrine came into play. One God, but three persons of deity, and so the church was to understand God as three-in-one or triune. It must be recognized, as it is a huge difference between the trinity and Modalism, that there is a distinction made between the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. I will be going into Modalism further down the line here so bear with the terminology. This is a key that must be understood, and if there is no distinction than we have Modalism, but there are several instances throughout scripture that show this distinction. One passage that makes this distinction clear is Luke 3:22, which describes the baptism of Jesus. Jesus, in this passage, comes out of the water, the Father speaks from heaven, and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus. In this passage all three persons are present and this cannot be simply one person.
Some bonus texts for these distinctions are Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In this verse shows again a distinction, but also places the three persons together, “in the name”. There is also 2 Corinthians 13:13, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” See also: 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 2 Corinthians 1:21-2; Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 2:20-2; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; Titus 3:4-6; 1 Peter 1:2. In addition to the distinctive, yet unified, persons the Gospel of John is loaded with such a threefold formula beginning with John 1:33-34. See also John 14:16, 26: 16:13-15; 20:21-22.
III. Misinterpretations of and Heresies against the Doctrine
When looking at the misinterpretations and heresies of the doctrine of the trinity there are really only three that are historically noteworthy. The first is Tri-theism. Interestingly enough, those who fail to understand the trinity often charge Trinitarians as being polytheistic and thus Tri-theists. In the early church, however, there were some such as John Ascunages and John Philoponus who taught that there were three who were indeed God, but not in relation or in unity. Ultimately, this was quickly rejected as it is polytheistic and scripture blatantly teaches monotheism.
Next is Sabellianism or Modalism, which originated by Sabellius (200 C.E.). This view holds to the oneness of God, but teaches that God manifests himself throughout history in different “modes”. Hence the name “Modalism”, the teaching expresses difference modes of existence: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God then turns from the Father into the Son and into the Spirit. In an attempt to reconcile the Threeness and oneness of God, Modalists simply hold that there is one person with three different names, roles, or activities. While this seems like a promising view, it is certainly lacking if we take scripture seriously as the three persons appear simultaneously in several instances. Another issue can be found in the narrative of Jesus going to pray to the Father, which then means that he is simply talking to himself. Most hold to a view of Modalism without realizing it, but an issue arrives when the believer refuses to hold to what scripture says after years of study.
Last is Arianism which has its roots in Tertullian, but was carried about by Origen who taught that the Son was subordinate to the Father in respect to essence. Arius taught that God was the only uncreated one and that there was a time when Christ did not exist. Ultimately, this denied the deity of Christ and was the main focus of the Council of Nicea, which condemned Arianism in 325 C.E. In some sense this heresy is striking again in certain cults, but blended with other heretical views.
It is hardly possible to do justice on such a massive topic as the trinity since there are numerous variables and so there will most likely be a follow up that breaks down each section extensively. The scriptures speak of a triune God and this is where the organic development of this doctrine occurred. Contrary to popular belief, the doctrine of the trinity was not created hundreds of years after the New Testament events, but instead developments were to articulate the nature of the triune God. While the language we use, “trinity”, “three persons, one substance”, were designed to simplify the expression of our beliefs, they were formed around scripture. In light of this post, the divinity of Christ is a necessary topic that must be covered to continue forward in a logical manner. Unfortunately, we live in a day and age where the divinity of Christ is being questioned increasingly and what is worse is that some groups that question his divinity label themselves Christian. It is our duty to ensure that what the bible teaches is retained lest people are lead into damnable heresy. If the name is “Christian” it must hold to the teachings of Christ and the Word of God. This ultimately includes the United States’ prosperity Gospel and progressive Christianity that are poisoning the word “Christian.”
Due to the large topics being addressed I need the help of my readers to determine what should be covered and what questions you may have. Leave your thoughts and questions below. I hope this post has been helpful in some shape or form. God bless you all.
The Bible – Translations considered ESV, NASB, KJV, and GNV.
Various works of Augustine and Justin Martyr.
Erickson, M. J., & Hustad, L. A. (2001). Introducing Christian doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
McGrath, A. E. (2011). Christian theology: An introduction.