Last week I started writing about the Trinity, a uniquely Christian doctrine that is so important. God revealed to us that He exists in Trinity, three in one. While this strains the limits of our logic (and this is a good thing, since we are talking about God), we need to strive to understand why God revealed this to us. This week, I will focus on where the word “trinity” came from, define what we mean when we say “trinity”, and look at some early mistakes made in history. Some of this discussion will get pretty technical, but hang in there.
The word “trinity” is not in the Bible; it was made up by a theologian named Tertullian. He lived about 100 years after Christ, and he thoroughly studied Scripture. He and others noted that Jesus is fully God: He was worshiped, had command over nature, and defeated death. Yet Christ also talked with the Father and sent the Holy Spirit. Tertullian used the word trinitas – or “tri-unity” – to describe how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could all be God, and yet the one. There is distinction and unity at the same time.
What do we mean by the word “trinity”? God is one and God is three – at the same time. First, God is one. There is only one God. Some people think that Christians believe in three gods; this is not true. Christians have always believed that there is only one God; this is stated clearly in the New Testament (Matt 19:17; Rom 3:30; Eph 4:6; Jam 2:19). Yet within this unity there is plurality. The Old Testament speaks of God making humans in “our” image (Gen 1:26), and of wisdom contributing to creation (Prov 8:27-31). The New Testament speaks of Jesus as the eternal “Word” of God (John 1:1-5), who is worshiped as God (Matt 14:33), and proclaimed Himself as eternal (John 8:58). Jesus prayed to the Father (John 17:1ff) and sent the Spirit (John 16:7). The word “trinity” means that God is one and three – eternally and always.
God is Trinity. This means that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God – and there is one God. The Father is not the Spirit, and the Son is not the Father. The Son is not 1/3 of God, He is fully God. God does not wear three “masks”; that is a false teaching known as Modalism. The Son is not a lesser god; that is a false teaching known as Subordinationism. The Son is eternally God; He did not become God – that is a false teaching known as Adoptionism. For hundreds of years, brilliant minds in the Church struggled to understand what God had revealed; the Trinity stretches the limits of human understanding but gives incredible insights into the nature of God, and reality itself. In the end, the Church did not try to strictly define the Trinity – that is beyond human ability – but the Church gave a series of creeds that set the limits of what can be faithfully said about the Trinity. The main creed on the Trinity is the Nicene Creed, heavily influenced by Athanasius, one of my personal Church history heroes.
If you have made it this far, good job. I want to highlight two points before wrapping up. First, God revealing the Trinity is God revealing reality. God is love and exists in relationship; His love is so strong that there is absolute unity; God is one. Theologians use the word “perichoresis”, which means “interpenetration” or “shared life”. This means that while the Father is not the Son or Spirit, they share a life and love and will and intimacy so powerful that they are perfectly one. This is the nature of reality; this is the life God wants for us. We are made in the image of God, and even in our relationships – marriage, friendship, Christian fellowship – we can sometimes experience “perichoresis”, a sharing of life and goals and heart so powerful that we are united, if only for a short while. This is a snapshot of the full reality that we long for; we are truly longing for God in His deepest nature: Trinity.
Finally, in Matthew 28:19, Jesus said to baptize people in the name (note that He didn’t say “names”) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Our God is a sending God. The Father sent the Son and the Son sent the Spirit. God doesn’t just live in Trinity, ignoring our struggles while He experiences perfect love. He loves us and invites us to experience His love. The Son came and died for us. The Spirit moves in and around every heart to end our rebellion. The Father longs for us to come home; we belong in His arms. God sacrificed because He loves us so deeply. Christians are called to leave their comforts, extend God’s invitation, and sacrifice for the sake of the lost. Being baptized into the Name is to accept the invitation to come home, into the love of God, into the life of the Trinity. This is what we were created for.