By Bill Gordon
The Importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity
The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most important beliefs of
Christianity. It is central to the Christian understanding of God and is
accepted by all Christian groups.
An Explanation of the Trinity
The doctrine of the Trinity is the belief that there is only one living and
true God. Yet, the one God is three distinct Persons: God the Father, God the
Son, and God the Holy Spirit. These three have distinct personal attributes,
but without division of nature, essence, or being. They enjoy eternal communion
and are coeternal and coequal.
The doctrine of the Trinity denies tritheism. Tritheism is the belief that
there are three gods. There is only one God. The doctrine of the Trinity also
refutes modalism. Modalism is the belief that God is only one Person who
appears in different modes at different times. The three Persons of the Trinity
exist simultaneously. They are distinct and eternal Persons in the one God.
While the word "Trinity" is not found in the Bible, its truth is expressed
in many biblical passages. The Bible recognizes the Father as God, the Son as
God, and the Holy Spirit as God.
The Doctrine of the Trinity in Early Church History
Many people who reject the doctrine of the Trinity argue that it developed
after the time of the apostles. Most critics of the Trinity point to the
Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 and the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381 as
the events that introduced the doctrine of the Trinity into the church. This
claim is not supported by the historical record. This can be shown by examining
the writings of Christians before the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople.
Clement of Rome wrote a letter to the church at Corinth around A.D. 96. In
this letter, he explains God in terms compatible with the doctrine of the
Trinity. He writes, "Do we not have one God, one Christ, one Spirit of grace
which was poured out on us?" (Cyril Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, New
York: The Macmillan Co., 1970, p. 65). Clement also writes, "For as God lives,
and as the Lord Jesus Christ lives and the Holy Spirit (on whom the elect
believe and hope) . . . " (Ibid., p. 70). In addition, the Trinitarian formula
of Matthew 28:19 is quoted twice in The Didache, a church manual written around
Ignatius of Antioch wrote several letters before his death in A.D. 117. He
affirmed both the humanity and deity of Jesus Christ in his letter to the
Ephesians. "The source of your unity and election is genuine suffering which
you undergo by the will of the Father and of Jesus Christ, our God" (Ibid., pp.
87-88). In the same letter he also writes, "There is only one physician-of
flesh yet spiritual, born yet unbegotten, God incarnate, genuine life in the
midst of death, sprung from Mary as well as God, first subject to suffering
then beyond it-Jesus Christ our Lord" (Ibid., p. 90). In his letter to the
Romans, Ignatius also refers to Jesus Christ as "our God" (Ibid., p. 103).
Another early Christian named Justin wrote his First Apology about A.D. 155. In
this writing, he declared that the Son is divine (Ibid., p. 285).
The doctrine of the Trinity is also implied in Athenagoras' Plea to Emperors
Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Aurelius in A.D. 176-77, "The Son is in the Father
and the Father in the Son by the unity and power of the Spirit" (Ibid., p.
309). Athenagoras repeats his Trinitarian position later in his Plea, "We speak
of God, of the Son, his Word, and of the Holy Spirit; and we say that the
Father, the Son, and the Spirit are united in power" (Ibid., p. 326).
Irenaeus of Lyons wrote his work Against Heresies in the late
second century. He writes, "Christ Jesus our Lord and God and Savior and King,
according to the pleasure of the invisible Father" (Ibid., p. 360). At about
the same time, Tertullian argued that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one
God in his treatise Against Praxeas (Justo L. Gonzales, A History of Christian
Thought, vol. 1, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970, pp. 182-183). Other early
Christians also affirmed their belief in the doctrine of the Trinity, including
Origen (A.D. 185-254) and Novatian of Rome (mid-third century) (Ibid., pp. 226,
Biblical Evidence for the Doctrine of the Trinity
The Bible recognizes the Father as God. Psalm 89:26 (NIV) says, "He will
call out to me, 'You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.'" Peter in his
first epistle writes, "who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of
God the Father" (1 Pet. 1:2, NIV; see also Matt. 6:9; 7:11; Rom. 8:15; 1 Pet.
The Bible calls Jesus (the Son) God. John 1:1 (NIV) says Jesus is God, "In
the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
The phrase "the Word was God" cannot legitimately be translated "the word was a
god" as do the Jehovah's Witnesses in their New World Translation of the Holy
Scriptures (New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1984). The lack of
the definite article in the Greek text simply identifies the word God as the
predicate of the sentence. The claim by Jehovah's Witnesses that it indicates
that Jesus is an inferior deity to the Father is false. Such a claim is not
only contrary to Greek grammar but would have been unthinkable to a first
century Jew. The Jehovah's Witness position actually advocates a form of
polytheism that consists of a big god and a little god.
When Thomas addresses Jesus as "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28, NIV), Jesus
does not correct him. Paul and Barnabas act very differently when the people of
Lystra start giving them divine homage in Acts 14:8- 18. They go to great
lengths to convince the people they are not divine beings. According to John in
the book of Revelation, the angel that he started worshiping also refused to
accept divine obeisance. The angel insisted that John stop and said, "Do not do
it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers who hold to the
testimony of Jesus. Worship God" (Rev. 19:10, NIV)!
Titus 2:13 (NIV) declares that Jesus Christ is God, "We wait for the blessed
hope-the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ." It is
very difficult to understand how this passage could refer to the appearing of
the Father since John 1:18 (NIV) says, "No one has ever seen God, but God the
One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." Titus 2:13
indicates that Jesus Christ is both God and Savior. This same truth is also
taught in 2 Peter 1:1 (NIV) where Jesus Christ is called "our God and Savior."
These passages declare that Jesus Christ is truly God.
The writer of Hebrews, quoting Psalm 45:6 says, "But about the Son he says,
'Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the
scepter of your kingdom'" (Heb. 1:8, NIV). In Hebrews 1:10, the writer quotes
Psalm 102:24-25, a passage referring to God, and applies it to the Son. The
inspired writer of Hebrews therefore identifies the Son as God.
The Bible identifies the Holy Spirit as God. Peter refers to the Holy Spirit
as God in Acts 5:3-4 (NIV) "Then Peter said, 'Ananias, how is it that Satan has
so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit? . . . You have not
lied to men but to God.'" The Bible describes the Holy Spirit as having
attributes that only belong to God (Ps. 139:7-13; Luke 1:35; Rom. 15:19; 1Cor.
2:10; Heb. 9:14). The Holy Spirit does the work of God (Gen. 1:26-27; Job 33:4;
John 3:5-6; Acts 16: 6- 7,10; Rom. 1:4; 1 Pet. 3:18; 2 Pet. 1:21). He also
receives honor due only to God (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14).
The Bible Describes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Distinct
The Father and the Son are distinct Persons. The Bible distinguishes Jesus
from the Father (John 1:14, 18; 3:16). Since the Father sends the Son, the two
are distinguished from one another (John 10:36; Gal. 4.4).
The Father and the Son are described as Persons distinct from the Holy
Spirit. Jesus distinguished the Holy Spirit from Himself and the Father (John
14:16-17). The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (John 15:26). The Holy
Spirit is sent from the Father and by the Son (John 14:26; 15:26).
The Holy Spirit is a Person. Although the Greek word for "spirit" is neuter,
the masculine pronoun is used when referring to the Holy Spirit in John 15:26
and John 16:13-14. The work of the Holy Spirit as Comforter, Helper, and
Teacher suggests He must be a Person (John 14:16,26; 15:26). His name is
mentioned with other people, which implies His own personality (Matt. 28:19;
John 16:14-15; Acts 15:28; 2 Cor. 13:14; 1 Pet. 1:1-2). The Holy Spirit
performs deeds that imply His personality (Gen. 6:3; Luke 12:12; Acts 2:4;
13:2; 16:6- 7; Rom. 8:26; 1 Cor. 2:10-11). His personality is also indicated in
that He is affected by the acts of others (Matt. 12:31; Acts 5:3-4,9; 7:51;
The three Persons of the Trinity are eternal. The Person of the Son existed
before His incarnation (John 1:1-3; 8:58; 17:5,24; Phil. 2:6; Col. 1:15-17;
Rev. 14). Other biblical passages reveal the eternality of the Holy Spirit
(Gen. 1:1-2; Heb. 9:14).
The doctrine of the Trinity is not a form of tritheism. Christians do not
believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three gods, but that they are
three Persons in the one God. While they are distinct Persons, they are one in
essence. God is not three and one, but rather three in one (John 5:17,19; 14:9;
15:26; 17:21-23; 2 Cor. 5:19).
The three Persons of the Trinity are coequals. The Father is equal to the
Son, who is equal to the Spirit (Rom. 8:11-14; 2 Cor. 4:4; Gal. 3:26; 4:4-6;
Heb. 1:3; 2 Pet. 1:21). Several passages speak of the Father, Son, and Holy
Spirit in the same context (Matt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 12:4- 6; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph.
4:4-6; Titus 3:4-6). All three Persons of the Trinity raised Jesus from the
dead (John 2:19; 1 Cor. 6:14; 1 Pet. 3:18).
The Work and Teachings of Jesus Christ
The Old Testament not only predicted the birth of Jesus but also affirmed
His deity. Concerning His birth, Matthew 1:23 (NIV) quotes Isaiah 7:14 and
calls Jesus "'Immanuel'-which means, 'God with us.'" The Virgin Birth also
reveals Jesus' divine and human natures. The preexistence of Jesus affirms His
divinity (John 1:1; 8:58; 17:5,24; Phil. 2:5-11).
Jesus claimed equality with God the Father. In John 5:17 (NIV), He says "My
Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working." His
Jewish listeners understood this as a claim of deity and sought to kill Him.
When Jesus called God His Father (John 5:17- 18) and Himself "the Son of God"
(John 10:36), He was affirming His own deity. Jesus spoke of His special
relationship with the Father when He referred to Him as "My Father" (John
In John 5:23 (NIV), Jesus also claimed equality with God when He said, "that
all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the
Son does not honor the Father, who sent him." Likewise He also asserted His
deity in John 10:30 (NIV) when He said, "I and the Father are one." His Jewish
listeners again picked up stones to stone Him to death because they believed
that in claiming equality with God He had committed the sin of blasphemy.
Jesus' assertion of divinity is also seen in His "I am" sayings. In John 8:58
Jesus not only claims preexistence but equality with the God who is the "I AM
WHO I AM" (Ex. 3:14, NIV).
While affirming the full equality of Jesus with the Father, the Scriptures
do indicate that Jesus voluntarily submitted Himself to the Father. Philippians
2:6-8 (NIV) indicates that Jesus was equal with God the Father, even though He
did give up His heavenly glory when He came to earth, " Who, being in very
nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but
made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human
likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became
obedient to death-even death on a cross!" This voluntary submission to the plan
of the Father explains those occasions where Jesus revealed that the Father had
sent Him (John 6:38; 12:44-45; 14:24; 17:3). It also clarifies what Jesus meant
when He said, "the Father is greater than I" (John 14:28, NIV).
Jesus' divinity is also evidenced by His actions. Jesus did things that only
God can do. He forgave sins (Matt. 9:6), which was blasphemy to the Jews
because only God could forgive sins. He claimed all authority (Matt. 28:18). He
claimed to be the only way of salvation (John 3:36; 14:6). He claimed authority
to judge the world (John 5:22). Genesis 1:1 (NIV) indicates that "In the
beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Yet the New Testament reveals
that Jesus created the world (John 1:3; Col. 1:16-17).
The only conclusion is that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity accurately
describes the biblical testimony about God. Finite humans cannot rationally
explain the doctrine of the Trinity. This should not surprise us since there
are many things the Bible teaches about God that we cannot fully understand.
For example, the Bible affirms the existence of God, the creation of the
universe, atonement from sin, and the resurrection of the dead although none of
the truths can be totally understood by finite minds. As with the doctrine of
the Trinity, Christians do not accept these teachings because they can
rationally explain them, but because the Bible teaches them.