The Biblical Definition of the Trinity

This entry is part 1 of 14 in the series The Trinity Series

What is the Biblical Definition of the Trinity?

The Doctrine of the Trinity has a long and complex history. From the enigmatic statements in the Old Testament, through the “two-power” theology of the intertestamental period, the actual coming of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit, followed by the New Testament Revelation, and finally the efforts in the first centuries of the church to find ways of explaining that revelation that was consistent with all of it and didn’t fall into error, the Trinity and the Scriptural foundations it rests on have been examined in great detail. What has possibly been lost in some of this examination is a clear understanding of just what it is. Many of us probably think we know, but as I will try to clarify in this article, most Trinitarians (and non-Trinitarians) probably are mistaking one of the explanations of the Trinity for the teaching actually found in Scripture. When we properly understand what the revelation of the Trinity actually is, it does something I find fascinating: it answers some questions that are posed by those who deny the Trinity, but it also sets parameters for what questions must simply remain unanswered. This has the interesting result (to me, at least) that a lot of challenges to the Trinity are answered by not being answered. You’ll see what I mean.

A well-known set of statements

The Doctrine of the Trinity, properly speaking, is a conjunction of statements taught explicitly in Scripture. These truths are sometimes expressed in different ways, but essentially boil down to the following:

  1. There is only one God, Yahweh, who is creator and the God of Israel (Deut. 6:4, Isa. 43:10)
  2. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are identified as personal and personally distinct from one another. (John 17, Matt. 3:16-17)
  3. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each identified as the one God, Yahweh, in various ways in Scripture. (F: Phil 1:2, S: John 1:1, Col. 2:9, HS: Acts 5:3-4)

These truths are all well-attested in Scripture, and it isn’t my purpose in this article to defend them, per se. My goal here is to reflect on how understanding these truths helps us to clarify what is and is not definitional to the Trinity. Essentially, if you agree with all three statements, you’re a Trinitarian. Related to these truths are the Christological truths. Since Jesus is identified as Yahweh, but also as a man, we have the following to consider about Jesus:

  1. Jesus is only one person. (Matt. 23:10)
  2. As a member of the Trinity, Jesus has all attributes of Deity. (Col. 2:9)
  3. As a member of humanity, Jesus has all attributes of humanity. (Heb. 4:15, 1 John 4:2)

[A note on statement #4 above. In studying for this article, I found it interesting that there is, in a way, very little Scripture that specifically limits Jesus to being just one person. What I found was that, the reason we take Him to be just one Person and not two (a human person and a divine person occupying one body) is that Scripture never limits any of Jesus’ actions to the activities of any separate persons within Him. Also, while there are many names and titles given to Jesus (Jesus, Lord, Christ, King of kings, Holy One of Israel, etc), none of these titles is ever applied as being a person in relation to any of the other titles. Essentially, we believe Jesus to be just one person because He is consistently referred to that way and no other. This line of reasoning may sound familiar to many, since it is a similar line of reasoning as that followed by Unitarians of various types, Jews, Muslims, etc. The reason the same type of reasoning works in the case of Jesus and not in the case of the Trinity is that there simply are no Scriptures referring to some other person as Jesus or speaking of Jesus in a plural way, but there are many Scriptures, in many ways, which speak of God in plural ways and which identify the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as God, while also maintaining that they are distinct and in personal relationship to one another. Absent all that Scriptural evidence, we would conclude that God is just one Person, just as we do with Jesus. But the Scriptures are clear, so we maintain that God is a Trinity.]

Now, the statements above are also all attested to in Scripture. And while only #5 is an essential truth of the Trinity, the others are Scriptural, and #6 is said to be something one cannot deny without being considered antichrist, according to John. So these truths are important too. Ultimately, If someone believes all six statements, then one is Trinitarian in both theology and Christology. So what can we draw from all this? What about the creeds and confessions? What about various arguments against the Trinity?

First, I want to clarify the distinction I’m making here between the definition of the Trinity and explanations of the Trinity. Since the Trinity is drawn from Scripture, I take the above to be what is definitional because it is what is specifically attested to in Scripture. On the other hand, ways of describing the Trinity that go beyond this are explanations. I think many explanations are logically implied by the above statements, but not all. Some examples of language used to explain the Trinity are things like: God is one being in three persons; The persons are co-equal, co-eternal, co-essential; Jesus has two natures; Jesus is 100% God and 100% man. The list goes on. I have no problem, really, with any of these statements or others that could be discussed, as I do believe that, properly understood, they are implications of the definitional statements above.

The reason I’m drawing this distinction is that it is very common for groups that deny the Trinity to make two errors when attacking the Trinity. The first is to focus their arguments against the wording in these explanatory statements, rather than the definitional statements themselves or the biblical exegesis that gives rise to those statements. They may say things, like, “Where does the Bible say God has any equals, let alone co-equals?” or, “God is a person, not an essence.” Statements like these are not actually aimed at the doctrine itself, but at ways of explaining it. And again, I think the explanations have merit, but any argument aimed at explanation language misses the mark in refuting the doctrine. Even if the argument proves sound, it only proves that a given explanation of the Trinity is a bad explanation. Unless the argument is actually aimed at disproving one of the numbered statements above, it isn’t even properly an argument against the Trinity.

Applying the definition

Also, understanding what is truly definitional and what isn’t helps to explain just what is meant by the term “mystery” as applied to the Trinity. Many opponents of the Trinity attack the statement that there are mysteries concerning the Trinity, alleging that any appeal to mystery is an example of not being able to refute an alleged contradiction and trying to sidestep their argument. As it turns out, mystery is just whatever falls outside of revelation and what is absolutely implied by revelation. Look again at the first three statements above. What do they say, for instance, about how the Persons relate to one another? Other than the fact that they are personal, there isn’t much. Now there is more in Scripture, as we see that the Father loves the Son, and the Son submits to the Father, and so on, and indeed, each of these statements could be fleshed out quite a bit with Scriptural witness, but there still remain lots of questions that are not answered. How exactly is it that God is spoken of as if He is a single person throughout the majority of the Old Testament, but then we are also supposed to believe that each of the three Persons named here are distinct, yet all God? That is a great question, and I have heard many explanations given, but the fact remains that the Scriptures don’t explain just how that all works. So we find a mystery, or gap in revelation, that God has not seen fit to give us an answer for. Again, I think there are several good answers to the question that are consistent with Scripture, but they are just that, explanations.

Another common challenge to the Trinity is to challenge the Deity of Christ by drawing distinctions between His human attributes and the attributes of God. The question is, “How can Jesus not know things if He is God?” or, “How can Jesus be tempted if He is God?”. Now of course, explanations abound. These kinds of questions are not unknown to Trinitarians. To see why they do not actually challenge the Trinity, I want to draw your attention to two things.

First, the questions themselves. What form do they take? They are questions about how it works that Jesus is both God and man. They are not proofs of any contradiction. They are just questions. And when you encounter arguments against the Deity of Jesus, it is rare that they ever go any deeper than questions like this or a list of His human attributes next to God’s attributes, complete with Scripture references of course. But, again, almost no further argument is offered as to why we should consider these lists as a real challenge to the Deity of Jesus. It is normally just assumed that this proves that Jesus couldn’t be God.

This brings me to my second point about this type of challenge. Look again at the three Christological statements. Just like with the Trinitarian statements before them, we get a picture of the essential truths about Jesus, but questions about how it works aren’t necessarily answered. And again, while some further questions may have an answer in Scripture, for those that don’t, it’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know. That’s an interesting question but Scripture doesn’t answer it so I guess it’s a mystery.”

The Trinity in Dialogue

Now, all of this isn’t going to come as any surprise to any Trinitarian who has experience defending the Trinity. We understand that it is Scriptural and that there are questions that just don’t have (or need) answers. My hope in this article is to help any Trinitarians who find these types of arguments troubling, and non-Trinitarians who find them compelling. Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, let’s see some examples of how this understanding assists in addressing challenges to the Trinity by looking at how some conversations might go between “NT”, our non-Trinitarian, and “T”, our Trinitarian.

NT: You believe a contradiction. You believe that Jesus is God, but Scripture is clear that He was tempted, and also that God cannot be tempted. How do you get around those Scriptures?

T: I don’t try to get around those Scriptures at all. I believe Scripture when it says Jesus is God and I believe Scripture when it says Jesus is a man. If He is God, then we would expect that He would display certain attributes, and He does. If He is a man, then He should display certain attributes, and He does. I believe that He is God in nature, and human in nature. How it all fits together isn’t explained in Scripture, but I don’t see how our ignorance of how something works is proof of a contradiction.

NT: The Old Testament clearly reveals that God is a single person. Yet you think God is three persons. How do you get around this contradiction?

T: First, the Old Testament never limits God to being only one person, as you believe, so you can’t find an explicit contradiction with the Trinity in Scripture. It does speak of Him as it would speak of a single person, but it also reveals three persons who are God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There are several possible explanations I could speculate about. One could say that it is appropriate to speak of God using singular pronouns and references because there is only one being and that the persons are so unified as to be appropriate to speak of them as one. One could also say that there may be a way to be a person that is different for God than for us. In other words, it may be that there is a sense, or a way, in which God can be said to be one person, and a different way in which He can be said to be three persons. So, here are two possible explanations. Either one solves any alleged contradiction, but ultimately, we don’t know just how it is that God is both one and three. I affirm the three definitional statements of the Trinity, and you haven’t shown any actual contradiction in them, only a lack of knowledge about how that works. We share that lack of knowledge, but it poses no actual challenge to the Trinity.

NT: Jesus clearly cannot be God since He said “the Father is greater than I.” If He were God, He would be equal with the Father, and wouldn’t have said this.

T: If you play close attention, you can see that the Trinity allows for greater and lesser roles for each of the Persons. It does not say anything about Jesus being equal to the Father in every way. Rather, it simply affirms that the Persons are all equally identified as Yahweh God. Just like people can have greater or lesser roles and be equal in human dignity and worth, so Members of the Trinity can take different roles, which is just what Jesus did. Your challenge only works if I were to think that there is no way that the Father could outrank the Son, but since I don’t think that, it is no challenge to the Trinity.

Of course, I could multiply examples. Now, this defense works with a great many challenges to the Trinity, but not all. If someone offers a non-Trinitarian interpretation of a specific text, then that interpretation may need to be answered within the text. However, as you can see, even some arguments from the Scriptures end up failing because of the presuppositions being brought to the text and so can be answered by calling attention to the presuppositions rather than arguing over the text itself.

On a personal note, as I was coming from Unitarianism to Trinitarianism, this was one of the most important realizations for me. As I encountered the Scriptures that affirmed the Deity of Jesus in various ways, I found that the real reason I couldn’t believe them was a personal commitment to the “logic” of Unitarianism. I felt that commitment strongly, so much that I would encounter difficult Scriptures and attempt to blow them off because the Trinitarian conclusion was “illogical”. Eventually, though, I had to decide whether I believed Scripture or my own definition of what is “illogical”. When I encountered, from several sources, the first three statements above, with the explanation that these are attested to in Scripture, and if you believe them, you are a Trinitarian, however you may try to explain how it all works, then I found where my “logic” had failed me. I was insisting on a Unitarian God as my starting point. When I decided to let Scripture define God, and not my finite reasoning,  I could allow Scripture to say what it says and affirm all it says, and be comfortable with that. I knew there were no contradictions, but also that there were significant areas of silence from Scripture that meant I had to be okay with not knowing things I thought I knew before. I pray you find this all helpful in understanding the great God of Scripture.

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3 thoughts on “The Biblical Definition of the Trinity”

  1. Well said! I find it odd to meet someone who admits the divinity of Christ while not being able to accept the Trinity as well. They can accept a God who can “think” a universe into existence yet he cannot be three separate, equal, unified persons. Oh to have been a fly on the wall at Nicea!

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