The doctrine of the Trinity is the doctrine that gets people in the most trouble throughout church history. For hundreds of years, people have stumbled over the relationship between Jesus and God the Father. The debates between Arius and Athanasius over the nature of the Trinity brought together the first ever council of bishops, the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. Arius taught that Jesus was derived from God, but not God Himself, while Athanasius defended the traditional view that Jesus and God the Father are of one essence. The council decided in favor of the traditional view, but the arguments within the church continued for several decades. It was finally settled in A.D. 381 at the Council of Constantinople, where the Arian heresy was put to rest.
Two hundred years later, around the time of the Third Synod of Toledo in 589, the Nicene Creed affirming the divinity of Jesus, which had also been expanded at the Council of Constantinople, was changed regarding the place of the Holy Spirit. The phrase, “and the son,” was added so that it now read that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, instead of just from the Father. This change contributed to the break in 1054 between the western church, which became the Roman Catholic Church, and the eastern church, which became the Greek Orthodox Church. The disagreements over the nature of the Trinity contributed to a schism within the church that persists even today.
Modern Christian cults fall at this same point. One of the most characteristic marks of Christian cults is that they deny Jesus is the eternal Son of God. But orthodoxy is not a new interpretation. It is the historic and true teaching of scripture on key, essential issues. Orthodoxy says that Jesus is God in the flesh and that the Holy Spirit is also God Himself. This is the nature of the Trinity.
The doctrine of the Trinity is unique to Christianity. Christianity is not unitarian and it is not polytheistic. How do we reconcile these two things? Does the Christian faith demand a belief that cannot be understood? No. It can be understood, and we do understand it.
We often think we don’t understand the Trinity because we’ve been told we don’t understand it. But how much do we have to know before we can say we understand it? Do we need exhaustive and total knowledge of all details? Do we need exhaustive and total knowledge of how electricity is wired into our homes to understand that electricity is in our homes?
Of course not, and it is the same principle in play with the doctrine of the Trinity. We may not know every detail or understand everything there is to know about the Trinity, but we do know something. As we come to understand scripture, we come to understand the Trinity. If we can understand what Peter, Paul, and James wrote, then we can understand what they say about the Trinity.
If you don’t understand the Trinity, then you don’t understand Christianity. The Trinity is the essence of Christianity. It is not the greatest burden of our theology, but what makes it true and understandable. Look not to all the controversies surrounding the Trinity, but instead look to what the Bible says about the Trinity.
First, Who is God? God is the source of all things. He spoke all things into existence. In the beginning, the Word was with God and the Word was God, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters (Genesis 1 and John 1).
Adam knew God directly in the Garden of Eden. After his sin, God no longer came to walk with Adam, so Adam no longer knows him directly. But Adam’s son, Cain, still knows God as a personal being who speaks and sees all things, even if they are hidden. Noah knows God as a personal being who speaks and tells him what to do. After the flood, Abraham comes to know God as a personal being who speaks and promises.
God is a personal God, but He does have personal distinctions and the biblical writers have no problem with this. The Angel of The Lord visibly comes to Hagar and He sees, speaks, and promises as God Himself. The Lord visibly comes to Abraham and speaks with Abraham in his tent. The Lord appears in the form of a man and discusses with Abraham what would happen to Sodom and Gomorrah.
These distinctions in God’s person are related to us throughout the Old Testament, and the authors did not have a problem with this facet of God’s nature.
This discussion will continue in Part 2 of the doctrine of the Trinity. This is part 1 of the sixth topic in a twelve part series on Basic Theology. Each part is broken into two half-hour sections. These recordings are part of a series called Theologoumenon. They were recorded by Dr. Bush in 1979 so that people in the churches, not just in seminary classrooms, could have easy access to lessons in basic theology.
1. The Word of God (part 1 – part 2)
2. God the Creator (part 1 – part 2)
3. God the Redeemer (part 1 – part 2)
4. Redemption (part 1 – part 2)
5. The Holy Spirit and His Gifts (part 1 – part 2)
6. The Trinity (part 1 – part 2)
7. The Doctrine of Sin Part 1 (part 1 – part 2)
8. The Doctrine of Sin Part 2 (part 1 – part 2)
9. Salvation (part 1 – part 2)
10. Doctrine of the Church (part 1 – part 2)
11. Last Things (part 1 – part 2)
12. How to Recognize Heresy (part 1 – part 2)