What Is the Trinity and Why Does It Matter?

One of the really hard concepts to understand in the Christian faith is the idea of the trinity: What does it mean, really? Are there really three people who are God, or is there really only one God the way the Bible says? If both three and one are true, how can they both be true at the same time? How does the whole thing work? Why is it so complicated? Why did people in the church fight so much about it? What difference does it make, as long as we love God and follow Jesus?

The idea of the trinity is never actually mentioned in the scripture, so what we know is what we’ve figured out from whatever clues we can find. The principles of the theological doctrine of the trinity say that
(1) each member of the trinity is individually God,
(2) that each member really is different from each other member, and
(3) that there is only one God.
Early in the history of the church, it was agreed to describe the trinity as three persons sharing one substance.

This language about three persons and one substance was the solution to one of the biggest controversies in the early church, and it was decided at the council that met in Nicea. We’ve heard that tempers ran high at that meeting, and there’s even some indication in the historical record that there were fistfights in the halls. It seems that passion around controversy in the church hasn’t changed much over the centuries since, although the topics have changed over time.

We don’t find many mentions in the bible of all three members of the trinity together. Usually we find each of them doing their own work in their own area of operation, but in cooperation with the others. The best known mention of the three together is probably the great commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Matthew 28:19)” Clearly Jesus had an understanding of all three, separate but together.

One way of looking at the trinity is to consider the three persons as different aspects of the one God, each with the responsibility for doing different things. Paul, in the letter to the Romans, contrasts the way the three interact with us. He says, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; (Romans 5:1-2)” and he also said, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.(Romans 5:5)” Through Jesus we receive forgiveness and reconciliation with God, and through the Holy Spirit we receive God’s love.

We know that all three members of the trinity were present at the time of creation, and that each of the three had a different job. Paul describes the Father’s role by saying, “… there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, (1 Corinthians 8:6)”

Psalm 8 is a wonderful appreciation of the richness of the Father’s work. The Psalmist says:

You have set your glory above the heavens…. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

The Father Creator is the One from whom all things come.

The Father is the originator, but even at the beginning of all things, Jesus was the one to provide the form for the substance of our world. As John explained it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. (John 1:1-2)” This other one who was there during creation, was the same one who took on a human body, lived a human life, and came among us as Jesus.

John goes on to say, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. (John 1:3-4)” The wisdom, the understanding, and the brilliant intelligence of God were all part of that work, bringing all things into being. The one who became Jesus embodied in himself God’s wisdom—God’s plan and God’s design for creation.

In Proverbs there’s also a description of the presence of God’s wisdom during those earliest moments of creation. The passage from Proverbs says,

When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him.

The Father and the Son were there together, working together.

But even at the very beginning, we can’t leave out the Holy Spirit either. The first verses of Genesis tell us that even then the Spirit was active, moving in and through creation to work the Father’s will. We hear, at the beginning of Genesis, what this time of creation was like. The Hebrew word that is translated as “wind” in the NRSV is (רוּחַ) ruach, which is translated as Spirit in other versions. In the NASB translation, the first two verses of Genesis are:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2 NASB)

Have you ever thought of that original creation as fun? We know that God worked on creation for six days, or at least for six eras of time that were divided by the different kinds of work that were done in them. We know that God looked at the work from time to time and approved of it. But Genesis doesn’t give us a picture of what it might have felt like to be part of the trinity at that time. The Father provided the creative power, the Spirit touched the specifics, and the Word provided the form and the design as things were made. But was it fun, or was it just another day’s work?

The Word that’s personified in Proverbs shows someone who purely enjoys the work of creation. Wisdom is included in each of the Builder’s tasks, and having a terrific time doing it all. Proverbs goes on to say, “I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” The work of creation is a daily delight, and, moment by moment, the Creator gets to enjoy the wonderful new things that are flowing into being. All the miraculous variety of objects and ideas must have great fun to savor and to enjoy, as they came into being, one after the other.

Next time we wonder why God created all things, we have at least part of the answer: it was a good time. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit got to enjoy themselves, working and creating together. In that critical time at the beginning of everything, all three members of the trinity were active, each doing the work that was uniquely their own.

During the time of Jesus’ life on earth, we also see all three members of the trinity active and working together. All three were there for Jesus’ baptism. When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit came to him and descended on him. We hear in Mark’s gospel that “as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:9-11)” All three are there, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father gives his blessing, and the Spirit anoints Jesus with power, as he began his earthly ministry.

The Holy Spirit was a constant companion, descending on Jesus at his baptism, leading him out into the desert to be tempted, filling him with strength to begin his ministry in Galilee, and providing the power for his miraculous healings.

During his lifetime, Jesus was in frequent communication with the Father through prayer. We hear in Luke’s gospel that “during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12)” It took a while for the disciples to get used to the idea that Jesus valued his time of prayer. We hear from Mark that early in their time together, “while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ (Mark 1:35-37)” Private time for prayer can be hard to come by, for Jesus as well as for us.

Jesus spoke about his close relationship with the Father during his ministry. He told the disciples, “I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father. (John 16:28)” He said publicly to the disciples and the crowd, “The Father and I are one. (John 10:30)” and he also told them, “if I do [the works of my Father], even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father. (John 10:38)”

This didn’t mean that Jesus and the Father were the same person, sharing the same thoughts. We know that Jesus had thoughts and desires that came from his human nature, and they were uniquely his own. But when there was a difference between his own desires and those of the Father, Jesus yielded to the Father every time. At the most painful time in the garden, Jesus expressed his own feelings to the Father.

he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:35-36)

In spite of his personal feelings, Jesus submitted to the will of his Father. They were one in will and action but not one in personality.

What we hold as Reformed Christians, according to our confessions, is that

In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Does this clarify the situation?

How comfortable are we with admitting that there are things we don’t know? How comfortable can we be, living with what we don’t know? I don’t know the details of the way the persons of the trinity connect to each other. From the scripture I can find out the way they work together, but I haven’t got a clue about how it happens.

On the other hand, I don’t need to know exactly what goes on in the engine of my car in order to turn the key and drive down to the grocery store. I do need to know a whole lot about what the car will and won’t do, and I do need to know how to tell when things are broken. But I can live with my car without knowing all the details, and I can live with the trinity without needing to know more than I can understand.

In the old days, they used to call something we don’t understand a mystery, but these days a mystery is just another problem to be solved. The fact that we can’t understand God completely, shouldn’t be a problem for us. It’s just the way things are. After all, we’ve heard from the prophet Isaiah that God says,

my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

When Job challenges God,

the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? (Job 38:1,4)

Job wasn’t there, and I wasn’t either. I have to take God’s Word for what happened, and if God sees fit to let me know the rest of the story later, that’s fine with me.

Our modern understanding of how the trinity works in practice is sometimes called the “communion” model of the trinity. Each of the three persons is truly a separate personality with intentions, ideas, feelings, and abilities that are uniquely their own. Each has a different role in interacting with human beings. But all three are deeply connected, interacting and cooperating with each other with a single purpose.

Jesus intended to include us, to include his people, in the kind of relationship that he had with the Father. At the last supper he said, “now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. (John 17:11)” This wasn’t just for the disciples, but also for those of us who come to him later.

You see, the kind of loving relationship that exists among the members of the trinity is the pattern that we should use for our relationship with God and with each other. Jesus says in his prayer,

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us … The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, (John 17:20-23)

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in a continuous mutual sharing of love and intention, even though their individual roles and external actions are different from each other. This is the way that the people of God should be living as individuals in one community, when we’re different from each other but joined in loving intention and commitment.

This kind of relationship—loving, supporting, and working together in different roles—is a model for the way we’re supposed to live together as the body of Christ. As the three persons of the trinity are one God, so are all of us who belong to Christ, one body. As each of the three is an independent person with different powers and different roles, so we’re each independent people with different gifts and different callings. As the three live together in one common purpose, so we’re to live together, growing closer to, and more like, the One who is our head.

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