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The essential doctrine of the Trinity

While we focus on the doctrine of creation, there are other foundational doctrines which creation depends on, and one of these is the doctrine of the Trinity. Rose W., UK, writes in with some misunderstandings about this doctrine, and Lita Cosner responds:

“When Christ (God) appeared in the flesh”—this quote is from one of the CMI webpages and I have seen others like it but I cannot accept the idea that you seem to think God is Jesus is God?

Surely when a passage states God appeared it is referring to Jesus the Son of God who is carrying out His Father’s work and so has the authority of God?

I think I’ve read on CMI pages that the ‘Holy Spirit’ is a real being when quite clearly the passages mean simply that people are receiving guidance and mental gifts in a sort of telepathic and empowering way—perhaps directly by invisible angels?

But the Bible clearly teaches that the Son pre-existed Creation, and was the agent of Creation.

I cannot understand why you hold to a belief in a Trinity! It makes a nonsense of God and his Son and the angels.

Surely God was able to create a Son who had/has the power to create a real live human form that can eat, drink, tire just as any other—and also able to appear and disappear at will—exactly as angels can and do—as the record of Herod being instantly struck down shows.

Herod accepted the praises unaware that an invisible angel was stood/hovering next to him and when he didn’t refute the praise the angel physically struck him dead. Lots of people refuse to accept this type of death and say he had bad stomach problems etc but I don’t see why an angel couldn’t immediately strike him and bring worms to life in and on his body.

Dear Rose,

Thanks for writing in and allowing us the opportunity of elaborating on why we believe in the Trinity. First, we’ve written a couple articles that give the biblical evidence more in-depth than I’d be able to reproduce in a short article, so before you read further, I’d ask that you go read the following, because the information will form the foundation for what I’ll say in the rest of my response:

No one disputes that the Father is God in the sense that orthodox Christians have always believed—He is eternal, omnipotent, and so on. So moving on to the Son—modalists would reject that He is a Person distinct from the Father, but you don’t seem to be one of those. Rather, you reject the eternality of the Son. But the Bible clearly teaches that the Son pre-existed Creation, and was the agent of Creation. John says at the beginning of his Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him nothing was made that was made (John 1:1–3).

So we have the statement that Jesus was in the beginning, just as God the Father was in the beginning (Genesis 1:1). Moreover, Jesus even has creative power—He is the agent of God’s creation. A few verses later, John even calls Him “the only God who is at the Father’s side” (John 1:18).

We know that God is certainly able to raise up created men and women for His purposes—there are hundreds of examples of this in Scripture. But this is not the description we get of Jesus. He existed before creation, and He shared glory with the Father (John 17:5). He is the proper recipient of worship that should only be directed to God—and notice that neither He nor Thomas were struck down like Herod (John 20:28)! In the book of Hebrews, even God the Father addresses Jesus, the Son, as “God” (Hebrews 1:8). So Jesus is God—distinct from the Father and equal in divine glory, but one God with the Father.

Most people do not dispute the Spirit’s eternality—they dispute His distinct Personhood of the Spirit. The word ‘spirit’ in our mind brings up images of something ethereal and ghost-like, so that might be part of the problem. However, the ways in which the Spirit is described make it clear that He is a Person alongside the Father and Son. And again, John gives us one of the best passages to illustrate the distinctiveness of the Spirit:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. … But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (John 14:15–20, 26).

In this passage, there are clearly three closely-related individual Persons being spoken about. Jesus goes and asks the Father to send the Spirit, and the Spirit is sent and indwells believers. And He is an active Person—He teaches and brings things to remembrance. In other passages He intercedes for believers (Romans 8:26). The Holy Spirit can be lied to, tested, and grieved (Acts 5:3, 9; Ephesians 4:30). The Spirit speaks (Acts 8:29, 10:19, 11:12), sometimes in the first person (Acts 13:2).

No one can be saved without confessing that Jesus, who died to pay the penalty for the sins of those who would become His people, is God.

So the Father is God; the Son is God; the Holy Spirit is God—they are all distinct Persons, but there is only one God. While the synthesis of all these clear biblical truths is difficult for even mature Christians to grasp completely, the doctrine of the Trinity is the summary of everything the Bible teaches about the Father, Son, and Spirit.

Rose, I hope you come to understand and accept the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity, because it is critically important for us to understand who God is for salvation. No one can be saved without confessing that Jesus, who died to pay the penalty for the sins of those who would become His people, is God. You can find more information in our Good News article.

Sincerely,

Lita Cosner

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Readers’ comments
C. M., Australia, 30 August 2014

Thank you for this article, Lita. I was also interested to read elsewhere that, in Genesis 1:26, in the Hebrew for God ('Elohim'), the plural form which means more than two is used, while 'image' and 'likeness' are singular however my Hebrew is not good enough to be sure that this is correct.

Eric S., Australia, 30 August 2014

"No one can be saved without confessing that Jesus, who died to pay the penalty for the sins of those who would become His people, is God." Does this mean before you die, you must get your doctrine straight and say this out loud to witnesses? Is salvation dependent on being post Jesus because there seems to be a lot of people pre Jesus who will not be able to have cognitively confessed faith in Jesus as God. I think the quote above was unnecessary in an otherwise excellent article. The bald statement needs qualification that opens a wide theological spectrum unless of course first world double predestination is true. In which case I am OK and one of the "ins" because I do believe Jesus is God. Mmmmm that sounds a bit smug, seriously I love CMI and what you are doing thank you for your vital contribution to equip the saints and challenge the world views that emanate from evolution.

Lita Cosner responds

Eric, I was responding to a particular lady who believes a heresy which will send her to Hell if she does not repent. My comment should be taken in that context, first and foremost. I was not addressing what happens in a deathbed conversion when a person dies 5 seconds after they are converted, or pre-Christ salvation.

If I was writing to a more general audience, I might have modified the statement to say something like, "No one can be saved without believing that Jesus the Savior is God".

Mark J., Australia, 30 August 2014

Well done Lita. Very clear and gracious response. Keep up the good work.

Chandrasekaran M., Australia, 30 August 2014

At least two persons of the Trinity are obvious in Hebrew in the first few verses of the first chapter in Genesis – the first book of the Bible. אלהים (Elohim – plural of אלוה which is God) is used in Genesis. Even though the noun Elohim is plural but the verb with the plural noun is conjugated in singular. Unfortunately these details are lost in English translations.

Terry P., United States, 30 August 2014

This article is a great example of why I love what CMI does. You can take any subject that might appear to be difficult to understand on the surface, like the concept of the Trinity, and break it down easily so that anyone can understand it. After reading this I wonder how anyone can argue against it.

Keep up the good work!

James C., United States, 30 August 2014

Please don't doubt that I speak from love but I must add my little opinion. Great theology does not come from trying to understand - that's what I call the "It makes sense to me" principle. Likewise one must avoid the "That's what I believe" principle of bible interpretation. Too often, I think, we read ourselves into Holy scripture when we attempt to interpret or hermanuet. Thanks for your time.

Lita Cosner responds

James, the problem with this is that God gave us Scripture so that we could understand certain things about Him. I would agree that both "It makes sense to me" and "That's what I believe" are terrible bases for theological interpretation. The locus of authority is the Scriptures, and so we must conform our thinking to what they teach.

Dean M., United States, 30 August 2014

The most important thing to understand about God is, 'how does the infinite communicate with the finite?' He communicates to us within the limitations of what we, as a created being, can understand. God has no beginning and no end. The difference between us and God is far greater than the difference between us and a single cell organism. Also, we can get a new body (we are more than just a physical body). How we will get a new body, and what it will be like, is well beyond our comprehension. Understanding the nature of God is even further beyond our comprehension (but we can apprehend God). Saying that it does not make sense for God to have a trinitarian nature makes about as much sense as an amoeba saying it does not make sense for a human to have a multicellular body. We also need to remember that Jesus, when he came as a man, took on the limitations of humanity ("He humbled himself" Phil. 2:8). We need to be careful not to equate those limitations with Jesus in His glorified state (a la. Revelation). While understanding the nature of God is beyond our comprehension, understanding how God can become a man is even farther beyond it (the Annunciation, Luke 1:25, is the closest we can get to it). As cited above, "…God created the heaven and the earth… And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters... In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... And the Word became flesh" (Gen. 1:1-2 and John1:1,14--a fulfillment of Gen. 3:15). The codification of the trinitarian doctrine was not developed until the 4th century (to fight off heresies). The early church did not need that, because they had the scriptures spelling out the trinitarian nature of God (as cited above).

Richard L., United Arab Emirates, 31 August 2014

Dear Rose, the following is true. The trinity is a doctrine that is assembled from many Bible verses—pieces of a jigsaw puzzle **that can only be assembled one way**; thus, it is also a clear and unambiguous signal from the Bible.

Clear and compelling signals, from within various Bible verses, exist for each detail of the following truth claims (please ask CMI, or any good systematic theology, for the references):

(1) Each of God (the Father), God the Son / Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is eternal (from eternity past / self-existent), all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present. These attributes belong only to God.

(2) Only one God exists. "I know no other."

(3) This distinction in the 3 divine ‘person’s is from eternity past (John 17).

(4) (John 13-17) These 3 ‘persons’/ centres-of-consciousness interact in various verb-actions.

Compelling conclusions: (1) One being of God. (2) Three ‘persons’ within the one divine being, **each person being fully God**. (3) From the overall biblical record, there is no interference effect or confounding of will (only perfect accord) between (1) and (2)—something beyond human comprehension.

We must get grounded in this clear-signal background knowledge BEFORE we attempt to understand complicated Bible data about the Son of God incarnating on Earth: he **fully keeping his divine being** while creating his human being (1 person in 2 beings; perfect fusion, not fully comprehendible by us); temporarily laying aside his divine rights in his human being, while being perfectly empowered by the Holy Spirit, and always perfectly doing the will of God the Father (John 8:28)--thus being the "more sure word" of prophesy.

Please read the whole counsel of God on this.

Robert S., Australia, 31 August 2014

Since all three Persons, The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19), all equally reside at the very highest level of power and authority in heaven, and ‘God’ being the very highest title (God/King [“King of heaven” Daniel 4:37]), then all Three have to be called God. And for this reason they acknowledge and address each other by the title of ‘God’.

“…but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4) which would be the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21) e.g. 2 Samuel 23:2

“…by the Spirit of God” Matthew 12:28

“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’ Matthew 27:46

“I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.” John 20:17

But to the Son He (the Father) says: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever” Hebrews 1:8

And so on throughout all of Scripture.

Donald D., United States, 31 August 2014

I believe we do ourselves a great disservice in trying to get too specific and detailed in defining God. Our finite minds cannot understand infinity and God says His ways are as high as the heavens above the earth He has given all we need to know about His character in Jesus who said if you have seen Me you have seen the Father. I am satisfied to wait until the Heavenly Kingdom to get all the exact details.

Lita Cosner responds

Donald, the problem with this reasoning is that God has revealed Scripture to allow us to understand a part of His nature. And if God has revealed it to us, as His followers we need to do our best to understand and believe what He has given us.

Johan A., South Africa, 31 August 2014

For me the easiest way to explain the Trinity is from Genesis. We are created in God's image. We have body, soul and mind. This is exactly the Trinity - Jesus is the body, God is the mind and the Holy Sprit is the soul. So once again Genesis helps to understand one of the foundational doctrines. thank you Lita for explaining the theological questions on this site so well.

Lita Cosner responds

Sorry to say, but your analogy of God is a flawed one. Jesus isn't one 'part' of God, Jesus is God--the fullness of God. As are the Father and the Spirit. Most analogies for the Trinity actually describe heresies.

Kenneth M., New Zealand, 1 September 2014

The foundation of Trinitarian belief is Mathew 28:19.

Yet when we look at the New Testament ALL believers were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Acts 2:28 on the day of Pentecost Peter told the hearers to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Did he make a mistake? Paul in Col 3:17 says Whatsoever you do, in Word or deed, do all in the the name of Jesus Christ. Is this a mistake?

Looking closely at Mat 28:19. Father is not a name, Son is not a name, Holy ghost is not a name. If there were three persons in the Godhead the scripture would have said 'in the NAMES' plural.There is one name for all. The Lord Jesus Christ.

What about the birth of Jesus? Mat 1:18 says Mary was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Jesus could not have two fathers. Therefore The Father and the Holy Ghost are ONE.

That makes the diagram of the Trinity wrong. Where it says the Father is not the Holy ghost is an error.

What about Isaiah 9.6? Unto us a child is given....he shall be called ...the mighty God, the everlasting Father the Prince of Peace. They are ONE. That makes another leg of the diagram wrong. The Father and the Son are one.

Acts 2:36 says God hath made this same Jesus both Lord and Christ. Christ is the Anointing-the Holy Spirit. They are all one. That puts the remaining leg of the diagram into error.

Trinitarian baptism did not start until the start of the Roman Catholic church in the fourth century. It is Roman Catholic dogma.

Father, Son, and Holy ghost are three offices of the same god, not three persons.

Lita Cosner responds

Kenneth, I could argue with you about your interpretation of the Great Commission passage, but I won't right now. Rather, I'll point out that I didn't use that passage in my response (but I could have), but I did use a lot of other passages in Scripture that you don't address. There is no way to interpret the Trinity out of all of them.

Mark M., Australia, 1 September 2014

Hi, I'm just reading this trinity article and find a very disturbing bible verse at John 1:1. I believe this demonstrates why there is a real and frightening trend to discount the King James version for new versions. The kjv says " the only begotten son who is in the bosom of the father he hath declared him." What is this change to " the only god who is at the fathers side he has made him known" so our understandig of the trinity is determined by the version of the bible we read. I know what I'm believing and its not whats new, fashionable and popular.

Lita Cosner responds

Mark, I'm not going to debate about Bible versions. But there is a good textual basis for monogenes theos over monogenes huios. Of course, John does call Jesus ton huion ton monogene in John 3:16, so Jesus is both the unique Son and the unique God ('only-begotten' is probably not as good a translation as 'unique'--the word is saying more about uniqueness than His origin).

Richard L., United Arab Emirates, 5 September 2014

Re. Kenneth

We must understand the biblical use of “the name of”. In the Old Testament, especially in the books of the Law, God’s “name” is associated with his attributes, holiness, personality, etc. The “name”, therefore, includes all that God is and says about himself and **says in general**. When we “believe on the name of Christ”, we thus have to accept his lordship—including what he says. Since Christ clearly commands a Trinitarian baptism in Mt. 28:19, this is within the scope of “being baptized in the name of Christ”, i.e., being baptized **in submission to** the Lordship of Christ, in submission to his teaching and orders. Therefore, regarding baptism and the nature of God, it is NOT Christ at the expense of the Father or the Holy Spirit. The Trinity stays intact. No conflict here.

Re. Donald and Johan

Because of our human limitations, we can “apprehend” a portion of the nature of the Trinity— what the Bible clearly reveals to us—while not being able to comprehend the fullness. And this is why analogies for it can never completely work—and can lead to heresy, as Lita cautions. We must submit to what the Bible clearly says about the Trinity—holding biblical ground about this revealed truth—while retaining humility regarding our finite limitation of understanding.

Regarding the intellect, rationality actually points in the direction of the Trinity. Beings of higher dimensionality NECESSARILY are more complex in nature. God—the Creator, Infinite, Self-Existent—is above all dimensions and time, and has to have a nature beyond our human comprehension. Our inability to find Trinitarian analogies is an apologetic strength, not a weakness.

Neville D., Australia, 5 September 2014

Sadly I can see from this Trinity doctrine that Christians today do not realise that it totally destroys the foundational text of gospel found in John 3:16-18 "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." If this beautiful text is true, and I believe it is, then God had a Son, His only begotten Son in eternity, and God "sent" him to this earth to die and show how much he loved fallen, sinful humanity. This shows a true Father, Son relationship. A real Father and a real Son. The Father loved us so much that He was willing to give His only begotten Son so that we could have life. If this is so then the Trinity doctrine totally destroys this Father/Son relationship. They cannot be co-eternal or exactly the same age if they are truly a Father and a Son. God cannot lie and neither can Jesus Christ. God says clearly that "This is my beloved son" and Jesus says clearly that God is his Father. Think about this very clearly dear brothers and sisters. This is the very foundation of the Gospel and it is destroyed by this trinity doctrine.

Lita Cosner responds

Neville, the problem is that you take the Father-Son relationship in the Trinity to be exactly the same as a human father-son relationship, which is of course flawed. Father and Son describe the real relationship and roles of these Persons, but the Father did not bring the Son into being at a particular point in time. The Son is fully God, equal with the Father in glory and power. Likewise with the Spirit.

I could add that it is very ironic that you try to use John of all people to argue against the deity of Christ! John, who says that in the beginning "the Word [the Son] was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were made through Him, and without Him was nothing made that was made" (John 1:1-3). He also says that when Isaiah saw the glory of God in the Temple, that was Jesus (John 12:41). And then there's all the "The Father and I are one" statements; He even tells Philip that anyone who has seen Him has seen the Father (John 14)! He claims a unity between Himself and the Father that would be impossible if the doctrine of the Trinity were not true.

Donald S., New Zealand, 12 September 2014

The basic question that needs to be asked 'Is God immortal or mortal?'

Lita Cosner responds

Of course, the answer is that God is not only immortal, He is immutable. Not only will He never die; He will never even change. See Psalm 102:25-27.

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