The Trinity: Why is it important?
I do not recall hearing a sermon on the Trinity during my growing-up years. In fact, not until my last year in the Seminary had I ever had any sustained discussion of the doctrine. In a seminar on the Doctrine of God, my professor led us in a detailed discussion of the doctrine’s history and biblical basis. But I must confess that it all sounded a bit arcane and impractical. My theological trajectory, however, was to gradually evolve into a preoccupation which has now become a passion. My indifference has moved to the settled conviction that the doctrine of the Trinity is the central theological statement of Christian thought and practice. In fact, far from being an irrelevant mystery, it expresses the core of what Christians want to confess about the nature of God and His vision for human happiness.
Thinking about theology involves two essential steps. First, the “what?” of the doctrine. This “what?” phase involves two important facets: (1) clearly stating the doctrine; and (2) assessing the biblical basis for the teaching. Second, the “so what?” reflections. This phase seeks to clarify such issues as the theological and practical implications of the doctrine—especially its coherence with other Christian teachings and the question of personal salvation, or reconciliation with God.
The “what?” of the Trinity
The Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Belief No. 2 spells out the doctrine: “There is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a unity of three co-eternal Persons.”1 With regard to this statement, both the early Christian church and the Seventh-day Adventist movement have had to deal with key challenges. The question of God the Father has never been controversial due to long tradition of orthodox Christian teaching. While the vast majority of Christians have affirmed the eternal deity of the Father, controversies have always swirled around the questions of the full and eternal deity of the Son, the divine personhood of the Holy Spirit, and the profound oneness of the Trio. Space does not permit a detailed discussion of the biblical evidence for God’s triune oneness, but if we can settle the full deity of the Son and the Spirit, it seems only logical that there would be a profound oneness with the Father. Thus Christians have confessed that there is One God (monotheism) who is manifest as Tri-Personal oneness in love (not three Gods, or tri-theism).
The full deity of the Son
Basically, three major types of biblical evidence show that Jesus was inherently divine, having the same nature and substance as His Father.2
1. Jesus is expressly called God in the New Testament. Hebrews 1 compares Jesus to the angels. In verses 7 and 8 the author claims that while God made the angels to be “spirits and his ministers a flame of fire” (vs. 7, KJV), “to the Son He says: ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever’” (vs. 8, KJV). Verse 8 is one of seven direct New Testament applications of the Greek word for God (theos) to Jesus (the other six: John 1:1, 18; 20:28; Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13: and 2 Peter 1:1).
Let’s be very clear as to what the New Testament writers and especially the author of Hebrews are saying in these verses: they are referring to Jesus as “God,” and in Hebrews the writer is interpreting the Old Testament by applying to Jesus a Psalm (45:6) originally addressed to the God of the Old Testament.
2. Jesus applies divine titles and claims to Himself. The most singular example is found in John 8:58: “Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM’” (NKJV). Quite simply what Jesus was saying is that He was none other than the God of the Exodus and He did this by applying Exodus 3:14 to Himself: “And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’”
Furthermore, this “God” who speaks in Exodus 3:14 goes on to clarify His identity as “‘The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’” In other words, Jesus not only claimed to be the God of the Exodus, but also the “LORD” (Yahweh) of the patriarchs. Is it any wonder that the unbelieving Pharisees “took up stones to throw at Him”(John 8:59)—the Old Testament punishment for blasphemy (see John 5:17 where Jesus makes a similar claim)?
3. Application of divine names to Jesus by New Testament writers. In Hebrews 1:10-12 Inspiration applies the supreme Old Testament title for God (JHWH or Yahweh) to Jesus. The author of Hebrews does this by applying Psalm 102:25-27 to Jesus. It was not unusual for the New Testament writers to do this; but what is striking about this application is that this Psalm was addressed originally to the “LORD” (Yahweh) of the Old Testament. Thus the New Testament author is quite comfortable with applying passages which were originally addressed to the self-existent God of Israel to Jesus. The strong implication is that Jesus is the “LORD” Jehovah (JHWH) of the Old Testament. Revelation 1:17 describes a similar usage of the Old Testament title, “the First and the Last.”
The full deity of the Holy Spirit
The Scriptures supply numerous lines of evidence that witness to the divine nature of the Spirit. The most representative comes from the Book of Acts in the tragic story of Ananias and Sapphira. This couple privately went back on the sacred vows they had made to God. When they came to publicly lay their partial offerings at the feet of the apostles, they were summarily struck dead. Peter gave a very impressive explanation of their impending fate: You have lied to the Holy Spirit. This is followed with the stunning revelation that they had “‘not lied to men but to God’” (Acts 5: 3, 4, NKJV). The most obvious implication is that the Holy Spirit is a divine being.
The next line of evidence is found in the many passages which describe the work of the Spirit as that which is unique to God. The clearest example of this is in 1 Corinthians 2: 9-11.
Paul declares that his readers may have a knowledge of “what God has prepared for those who love him” (vs. 9, NRSV). And how is such knowledge possible? “These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (vs. 10). And how is it that the Spirit is privy to such knowledge? “The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God” (vs. 10, 11).
What the passage suggests is this: If anyone wants to know “what is truly human” they must get such information from one who is a human being. What, however, is true on a human level, is even more true on the divine: “Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God” (v. 11, NKJV). Only a divine being can truly know what is in the mind and heart of another divine being.
The “so what?” of the Trinity
What are the key “so what’s?” of the full deity of both the Son and the Spirit? Before we address these important questions, we need to deal with an issue that bothers many: the seeming lack of logic in confessing that three equals one. Such issues are especially bothersome to the rationalistic mind of many university students in the West and to our strongly monotheistic Muslim friends.
The logical objection. Millard Erickson has suggested that the human reason will not tolerate such fuzzy, “three = one” Trinitarian math. If you go to a grocery store and take three loaves of bread to the checkout counter and tried to persuade the clerk that they are really one and all that you have to pay for is for one, the clerk might be tempted to quickly call for store security.3
The first response to the logic of Trinitarian thought is to admit that we are dealing with the profoundest of mysteries. In loving relationships, there does appear to develop a profound social or emotional oneness. Are we then to say that loving relationships are totally illogical and incoherent? We think not. And this seems to be the best way to give a coherent account of the mystery of the Trinity and its plural oneness.
Once more, Erickson wisely points the way to a credible response: “We therefore propose thinking of the Trinity as a society of persons, who, however, are one being. While this society of persons has dimensions to its inter-relationships that we do not find among humans, there are some illuminating parallels. Love is the binding relationship within the Godhead that unites each of the persons with each of the others.”4
Not surprisingly, Erickson then appeals directly to 1 John 4:8, 16: “God is love.” Do we truly comprehend the depths of this inspired statement that is so disarming in its seeming simplicity? We would suggest that these three words have a profound contribution to make to our understanding of a God who has eternally preexisted in a state of Trinitarian “oneness.” “The statement… ‘God is love,’ is not a definition of God, nor is it merely a statement of one attribute among others. It is a very basic characterization of God.”5
For Trinitarian Christians, the key question about God has ultimate reference to the issue of His love. And if God is not “love” in the very core of His being, then any questions about His nature quickly descend to a state of biblical irrelevance. We, however, sense that love is the most basic characterization of God. If God is truly—in His very essence—the God of “love” (John 3:16 and 1 John 4:8), then we need to consider the following implications:
Could One who has existed from all eternity and who made us in His loving image—could this God truly be called love if He existed only as a solitary or unitarian being? Is not love, especially divine love, possible only if the One who made our universe was a plural being who was exercising “love” within His divine plurality (Trinitarian) from all eternity past? Is not real, selfless love possible only if it proceeds from the kind of God who, by nature, was and is and shall eternally be a God of love as a social Trinity?
We feel strongly impelled to affirm that God is a Trinity of love and that this love has found its most moving revelation in the creative work, Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of the fully divine Son of God. God’s Trinitarian oneness, in the finale, is not illogical. In fact, it is the source of the only logic which makes any ultimate sense—a love that is self-sacrificing, mutually submissive, and eternally outward flowing in the grace of creative and redemptive power.
Such infinite love, however, must be practically communicated to finite and sinful human beings. And here is where the “so what?” of the full deity of the Son and the Spirit play out in the drama of creation and redemption.
The deity of Christ: Implications
First, before the Trinity could ever bring the effectiveness of Christ’s saving life and death to bear on the salvation of sinners, there was the urgent need to reveal to sin-alienated human beings what God is truly like. And the only being who could offer such an arresting revelation of the divine nature would be God Himself. And this was the primary mission of Jesus, the divine Son of God.
Now, when it comes to the actual provision for salvation, especially in His atoning death, only One who is equal with the Father in divine nature could offer a sacrifice that would fully satisfy God’s divine justice. And only the fully divine Christ, through the Holy Spirit, would be powerful enough to re-create sin-scarred human beings into the likeness of the divine character. In other words, only the divine Son could effect conversion or the new birth, and bring about character change that would reflect the divine likeness. To sum it up, only the Son who is love incarnate could manifest and effect such a transforming love.
The full deity of the Spirit
As with the deity of the Son, so the theological implications of the deity of the Spirit arise out of the issues related to God’s intention to redeem sin-marred humanity.
Most certainly, if only One who is equal in nature and character to the Father could offer an effectively saving sacrifice for sin, then by the same token, only One (the Spirit) who is fully divine could effectually communicate the efficacy of this sacrifice to sinful human beings. Again, it takes a fully divine Spirit to reveal to the sinner the work of the fully divine Son (1 Corinthians 2: 7-12).
Only the Holy Spirit could bring the converting and convicting power of God’s great love to fallen humanity. Only One who has been eternally bound up with the heart of self-sacrificing love in the Father and the Son can fully communicate such love to lost humanity.
Only One who has worked with the Son in creation, would be equipped to effect re-creation in souls ravaged by the destructive forces of Satan and sin (Romans 8:10, 11).
Only One who can be fully in tune with the heart of Jesus’ incarnate ministry, and yet at the same time be able to be everywhere at once (the omnipresence of God), could ably represent the personal, redeeming presence of Christ to the entire world. The only being who could do such a thing is the personal, ever- and all-present Holy Spirit.
I want to challenge each reader to ponder prayerfully and carefully the Trinity and its profound implications for the life and destiny that the God of the Bible is offering to humanity. This doctrine meets the demands of modernity’s lust for a rational reflection on the human/divine predicament and at the same time offers a truly enticing mystery for the tastes of the more relational “postmoderns.” Furthermore, Trinitarian thought and life offer a vision of living in loving relationships, which reflects the most profound reality offered by the One Who has made the world in love and is seeking to redeem it from sin (which is un-love—the most profound antithesis of divine love).
Furthermore, I cannot think of any better point of discussion when seeking to relate to the monotheistic concerns of our Muslim friends. If the love of Jesus, the point Man for the loving Trinity, cannot carry the day, nothing will. The resources of the love flowing from the Father, embodied in the Incarnate Christ and communicated by the fully divine Person of the Holy Spirit provide the richest theological vision imaginable for the destiny of a lost world.
Woodrow W. Whidden (Ph.D., Drew University) is professor of religion at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual. Revised, 16th edition. (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 2000), p. 9.
- For an extensive presentation of the evidence, see my chapters in Section One of The Trinity: Understanding God’s Love, His Plan of Salvation and Christian Relationships (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 2002), pp. 16-119.
- Millard Erickson, Making Sense of the Trinity: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 2000), pp. 43, 44.
- Ibid., p. 58.