The Trinity: A Primer
I have decided to try something a little different and post something that I have already written for use elsewhere. I am currently teaching a high school boys discipleship class in which we just learned about the
Trinity. I used the following curriculum which I originally wrote for my Utah mission team and used last summer for a high school theology class. It is intended as a primer on the theology of the Trinity, and hopefully it will prove useful for other people as well.
Throughout the history of the Christian Church, the doctrine of the Trinity has been one of its most distinctive and difficult characteristics. The Trinity is very hard to understand, but some sort of an understanding is not only important but needed for the Christian life. The struggle with the doctrine began in the early Church which saw itself as a branch of Judaism and monotheistic (believing in only one God; Greek mono = one + theo = God). At the same time, however, the Church worshipped not only God the Father but also Jesus Christ the Son as well as the Holy Spirit and their scripture also referred to all three with the characteristics of God. They apparently worshipped three persons but professed to worship only one God and so the doctrine of Trinity was, in a sense, discovered.
The doctrine of the Trinity would be refined over time by the Church, especially in the Apostles’, Nicene and Chalcedonian councils and creeds (statements of faith). The Church would find that the Trinity was best understood through a few statements of what it is, many statements of what it is not, and analogies that were able to help in some ways but were never perfect. Like the Church before us, we will look at the Trinity following this basic scheme.
Before moving on, though, it will be helpful to look at those sections of the Nicene Creed in particular that give insight into the Church’s understanding of the Trinity. They read:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.
What can we say about the Trinity?
The orthodox Christian Church holds that the Trinity is one God in three persons. Each person of the Trinity is fully and completely God, is distinct from the other two, and is also completely and totally attached to the other two. Notice that we say the Trinity is “one God in three persons” and not “three persons in one God.” This may seem like a small point, but it helps us to remember a truth about the Trinity. We do not believe that if you add three persons of the Trinity together that you get one God, like God can be divided into three parts. God cannot be divided at all. Instead, we believe that the one God exists in three persons. By saying this, we remind ourselves that the Trinity is not a collection of three god-like persons who got together one day and decided to join forces. No, they have eternally existed together as one triune God.
Now on to the three members of the Trinity being distinct: each person of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is distinct from the other two. Thus, the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit, the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son.
With some basic groundwork laid, we can move on to looking at a few different questions that come up in dealing with the Trinity.
If the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (and maybe the Son), then is the Father older than the Son and the Holy Spirit, and is the Son older than the Holy Spirit?
The orthodox answer is simply no. No member of the Trinity is any older than the others. In order for one to be older than another, it would require that at one point a person of the Trinity did not yet exist. Every person of the Trinity has existed eternally; there was never a time when any one of the three did not exist. The Father did not make or create either the Son or the Spirit. If He had, that would mean that the Son and the Spirit would not in fact be God but would instead be part of creation.
Early on in the Church’s history arose a heresy that dealt with this, which was called Arianism after its founder Arius. Arianism believed that the Son was the very first, most important and most perfect creation of the Father. The Holy Spirit was, in turn, the first creation of the Son. Obviously, the problem with this heresy is that Son and Spirit are no longer God but instead part of creation which means that it is sinful and idolatrous to worship them. As we will see in a later section, it also robbed Jesus Christ of the ability to redeem humanity because only creator God and not creation is capable of redeeming a fallen creation.
The language the Church has used in describing the relationships among the members of the Trinity has been that the Father eternally begets the Son and generates the Holy Spirit, that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and that the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father (and maybe the Son). The language of “begetting,” “generating,” and “proceeding” has been specifically chosen because it hints at the relationships without implying that one person comes before another in time. For example, there is a world of difference between “begetting” and “making.” Human persons beget human persons, dogs beget dogs, fish beget fish, etc. Humans make other objects, such as art, buildings, tools, weapons, medicine, food, etc. One might say that like begets like and like makes unlike (that is, things beget things like themselves but make things different than themselves). Thus, to say that the Son is begotten of the Father is to say that the Son is of the same nature of the Father, whereas the universe was made by the Father and so does not share His nature in fullness.
C.S. Lewis offers a helpful analogy by telling us to imagine three books stacked on a table. The first book can be defined as being under the other two, the second can be defined as between the other two, and the third can be defined as being on top of the other two. Now imagine there were no table and that the three books had been like that forever. We can understand their relationships to one another without thinking of one existing before another.
Because all three members of the Trinity have existed eternally, it is not correct to speak of one member, say the Father, producing another, say the Son, through some sort of actual intercourse. Thus, while we speak of the Son as the Son, we do not mean that He is a literal child of God the Father. Furthermore, because the three members of the Trinity have eternally existed as God, we know that creatures do not become gods and that God has never existed as anything but God.
Are the Father, Son and Holy Spirit just names we give to the one God when He does different things and fills certain roles?
Once again, the orthodox answer is no. The idea that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply different names for the one God in the different roles He fulfills was rejected early on by the Church as the heresy of Modalism. Modalism basically states that the one God changes from mode to mode depending on what role He is playing at the moment. Thus we might refer to creator God and the God who takes care of the details of life as Father; the mode in which God redeems and saves us as God the Son; and the mode in which God lives in us, transforms us and inspires us as the Holy Spirit.
There are three major problems with Modalism. The first is that the Church and the Bible both portray the three members of the Trinity as distinct, without a hint of their being the same person. The second is that no role is assigned to just one member of the Trinity; all three members were involved in the creation of the world, in the redemption of humanity and within the transformation of believers. It would thus be meaningless to refer to the persons in different roles if they in fact are all involved in all roles. The third is that if the three members of the Trinity are simply names for different modes of God, there might be many more modes of God and therefore it is wrong to speak of a Trinity when there might be four, eleven or an infinite number of modes of God.
At this point some might be confused by referring to three distinct persons of the Trinity. When we think of person we usually think of human beings, but obviously that is not proper when referring to the members of the Trinity. Instead, person in this sense stems back to its Latin root, the word personae. This was a legal term in Rome which referred to a possessor of property. In the case of the Trinity, each person of the Trinity possesses the property of deity (god-ness), the nature or substance of God. A problem that came from this term in the early Church helps to highlight the rejection of Modalism by the Church. When (poorly) translated into the Greek of the Eastern Church, personae became prosopon which implied a mask that an actor would wear in Greek plays. The Eastern Church recognized that this translation hinted at a form of Modalism and rejected it. They instead used the term hypostasis which better represented personae and referred to the nature of God as ousia, so that in the Greek the Trinity was defined as one ousia in three hypostases. Remember that hypostasis refers to personhood; it will come up again later.
Are the members of the Trinity in a sort of hierarchy, with one having a higher rank than another?
You guessed it, the answer is no. Although the Bible sometimes sounds as if the Father has a higher position and rank than the Son and Spirit, such as when it says that they do the will of the Father, no member of the Trinity has more power or a higher rank than the others. To believe that one member has a higher rank than the others is to buy into another early heresy known as Monarchianism. Monarchianism basically holds that there is a hierarchy among the persons of the Trinity and generally places God the Father as the most important member. The name Monarchianism comes from the same root as monarch and monarchy and holds a similar concept of kingship.
One of the major problems with Monarchianism is that it tends to divide the members of the Trinity too much from one another. It is, of course, true that the Son and the Holy Spirit do the will of the Father but we should not understand that to mean that they submit their own wills to the will of the Father because He is more powerful. Instead, they do the will of the Father as they will the same things that the Father wills. All three are perfect and so they each have a perfect will and so will the same things. Beyond that, if we look at the Son as submitting to the Father because the Father is more powerful than we are viewing the Trinity through a worldly lens. In the fallen, sinful world power is used to dominate and must be submitted to. In the Trinity, as seen through the Christian faith, true power is exerted through submission and love. If in any way a person of the Trinity does submit to another, it is not a sign of weakness but of strength.
The Bible can be easily read in such a way that we see a sort of hierarchy among the members, and that may in fact be true. If it is, however, we must remember that it is because the persons of the Trinity lovingly submit to one another and not because any one member is more powerful or more worthy of authority. The persons of the Trinity are equal in their nature and god-ness.
Looking at a few models of the Trinity.
Because the concept of the Trinity is so hard to understand, many Christians have tried to make it more understandable by developing models or analogies for the Trinity. No model is perfect but most are helpful in one way or another so we will look at a few important models and dig in to what they have to offer us.
1. We can understand the Trinity as Lover, Beloved and the Love that exists between them. The Father is the Lover, the Son is the Beloved of the Father and the Holy Spirit is the Love that exists between them. Without any one part, the whole no longer exists. If there is no Lover, there is no source of the Love and the Beloved is no longer Beloved. If there is no Beloved, there is nothing to make the Lover a Lover and there is no Love. If Love does not exist, it is meaningless to speak of a Lover or a Beloved.
This model was developed by St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest theologians the Christian Church has ever known. It does a good job of capturing the importance of all the members for the existence of the whole and emphasizing the distinctiveness of each member (not to mention that it draws from the Song of Solomon). The model does suffer in a few important respects, though. It is not great for representing the essential unity of the Trinity. Although removing one member from the equation would dissolve the whole, the other members might still exist in some other way. If we removed Love, the Lover and the Beloved would still exist but they would be known by different names. This is unlike the Trinity in which the existence of each member is totally necessary. The second major flaw is that it downplays the personality of the Holy Spirit. When we think of Love, we tend to think of an emotion or possibly a force. We do not, however, think of an actual person with consciousness and a will and this analogy risks dropping the Holy Spirit to a mere force.
2. The Trinity is similar to water. Water is one essential substance but can exist in three different forms: liquid, solid or gas.
Most modern American Christians have probably heard this analogy before and it does in fact help to grasp the unity of three distinct things. It drives home the reality of God’s one essential nature. It really is not a great analogy, though, because it borders on Modalism as water simply changes from form to form but is in reality the same. It can lead to the misconception that the persons of the Trinity are just different forms of the one real unity.
3. The Trinity is like a family, with the Father as the parents, the Son as the children and the Holy Spirit as the love that binds the family together.
This model is basically an alteration of St. Augustine’s, but is not quite as useful. It has the strength of emphasizing the interpersonal relationships of a family within the Trinity, but fails in other areas. For instance, a family unit can greatly lack in unity and so the unity of the Trinity can be lost in this example. Beyond that, it does not seem that all of the members are necessary in order to make the whole, especially in a modern American context. Once parents have passed away, aren’t the children still a family? Is a married couple not yet a family if it has not yet produced children? Does a family need to be filled with love in order to be a family? There are really too many ideas of what constitutes a family for this model to be of much use.
4. The Trinity is like an electrical circuit, with the Father as the battery, the Son as the wire, and the Holy Spirit as the electrical current. If any one of these three is removed, an electrical circuit no longer exists.
The strength of this model is that it highlights the necessity of each part in order for the whole to exist. It also gives an example of relationships between the members of the Trinity and their intertwined nature. It fails to reveal a personal nature of any member, however, and although the removal of any one part means that the whole no longer exists the other parts do continue to exist.
In thinking about the Trinity, it is often best to hold many good analogies in mind at once, recognizing the weakness of each but counterbalancing their strengths. One model might put too much emphasis on unity at the cost of distinction whereas another might represent diversity well but fail in regard to unity. By holding these different models, as well as the basic orthodox rules for understanding the Trinity, together, we can maintain a tension that is faithful to the orthodox Christian faith.
As a final note on the Trinity, it might seem that the doctrine of the Trinity is too messy to be true and that it would be much tidier to have just one completely unified god or to have three separate gods. While these views would be tidier and easier to grasp, it is for that very reason that they seem inadequate. One uniform god makes sense, as do three separate gods, and so they seem to be the very sort of things that would be invented by humans who want to explain everything in a neat and tidy fashion. Why would early Christians have invented the doctrine of the Trinity, when it must have been just as hard to understand for them as it is for us? The answer would seem to be that they did not invent the doctrine, but held faithfully to it because it was the truth revealed by God.
We now know that light behaves in an extraordinarily odd way, with some characteristics of a wave and others of a particle, two things that we thought were totally separate. We only believe that light behaves this way because it has been observed to be true. It is too wild of a claim to invent. Similarly the triune God, whom we profess to be infinitely beyond our ability to grasp, has revealed Himself to be more complex than we would have guessed and that is simply a mystery of the Christian faith.
 When using the term orthodox in this work, we will intend it to mean the correct belief held by all Christians. If at some point we want to refer to specific orthodox Churches they will be named, such as “Greek Orthodox,” “Eastern Orthodox,” or “Coptic Orthodox.”
 Colossians 1:15-20, John 1:1-3, Isaiah 9:6, Hebrews 13:8.
 Interestingly, there are some major doctrinal similarities between the Arian heresy and today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses.
 John 3:16.
 Notice that almost every form of heresy occurred within the first four centuries of the Church’s existence. Satan is not creative with his lies and simply recycles and repackages them again and again.