Christianity is one of the great monotheistic religions, or so you have heard. But do Christians actually worship one God? Or is it 3? What is this Trinity thing all about and why do Muslims and Jews (the other two great monotheistic religions) consider Christians to be polytheists (worshiping many gods)? Good question.
The concept of the Trinity is a core Christian doctrine. The word Trinity does not occur even one time in the entirety of the Scriptures. However, the concept occurs consistently throughout. The word Trinity, which means three in one, or three in unity, tri-(u)nity, was invented later to describe the concept that so readily appears throughout Scripture.
The doctrine of the Trinity is simple, but very difficult for us to wrap our minds around: There is one God, yet He exists in three distinct persons. These persons are called God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. There are many passages in both the Old and New Testaments that refer to these individuals being separate from one another, and many instances in which they are referred to as one or equal with one another. Two things cannot be equal unless they are the same, especially when there is only one thing that is the same kind of thing as God.
Before we jump into the Scriptures about this, how do we make rational sense of this concept? Many folks over the years have tried to explain it with natural metaphors. An egg, for instance, is one egg, but it has a shell, a white and a yolk, three distinct parts. Arguably if you took any of these three parts away it would cease to be an egg, however each of the three parts could also stand alone for various reasons and not need the other two. Typically we throw the eggshell away. This is not too helpful because every part of God is necessary at all times.
Others try to explain the Trinity as states of the same essence by using the metaphor of water. Water is a liquid when at room temperature, a solid when frozen and a vapor when heated, but they are all three always the essence of water. This is not a great metaphor because the three states cannot all exist at the same time, which is a core component of the Trinity. This describes something more like modalism than the Trinity (modalism says that God manifests Himself as Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit at different times but is always just the one person, God).
Probably the most helpful recent metaphor I have found for the Trinity is a fidget spinner. As silly as that sounds, the three outer wheels are constantly spinning around and eternally connected to each other through the central axis. All three wheels are individual, yet they could not operate without the other two. They are all a part of a unit that is useless unless all the pieces are there. They’re always moving the same direction, at the same speed, and they are so much a part of each other that you can’t even see the difference when they’re moving. There are breakdowns to this metaphor too, but I think it’s probably the best natural metaphor we have. All natural metaphors for the Trinity break down eventually because the Trinity is supernatural. We may not ever be able to completely wrap our minds around it because our minds are not infinite like God is. We have limitations, and the concept of the Trinity stretches those limitations to the breaking point.
In trying to understand this oddness that seems so clear in the Scriptures, early Christians came up with a word to describe it: perichoresis. Perichoresis essentially means ‘dancing around each other’. It evokes the image of two people who are dancing so tightly together, so quickly, and so smoothly that you cannot distinguish the one from the other. They are always going in the same direction with the same goal and exactly in sync with one another. A modern day equivalent may be watching a couples figure skating routine during the Winter Olympics. A fidget spinner is not too far off from this idea, but it adds the third person.
There are many examples in Scripture of the three persons of the trinity acting together. Here are two:
Genesis 1:2 – 3: 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. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
This passage involves 2 of the 3 persons of the trinity working together in the creation event. The Spirit of God (Holy Spirit) was physically(?) present at the site of the creation, and God (assuming the Father) seems to be commanding the enterprise. Moving a little down the page, we see again: “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” – Genesis 1:26 – 27. This shows that at least those two were one in the same. God says “let us” and “in our image”, and then it says “God created man in His image” – not “God created man in their image”. So the plural became a singular in a jump of one sentence, which is grammatically incorrect (even in Hebrew), but is exactly how the original texts were written.
The first chapter of John also makes other assertions (1 John 1:1-3, NASB):
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God.
3 All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.
First, John asserts that the Word was from the beginning. Second, that He was with God in the beginning. Third, that He is God. And fourth, that He is actually the One who did the creating in the beginning. The rest of John chapter 1 makes it crystal clear that the person who John had called the Word who is God is the same as the person Jesus, who is also called Christ. In many other places in Scripture, Jesus is called the Son of God and Jesus Himself refers to God almost exclusively as “Father” throughout His teaching and ministry. Paul makes this even more explicit in Colossians 1:16 when he says of Jesus: “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.”
This complicates things, because we were sure that in Genesis 1 it was God who did the creating and the Spirit of God was present. Here it tells us that Jesus did the creating. But it also tells us that Jesus is God. So does this reinterpret Genesis 1 (and the Godhead) for us and take God the Father (someone other than Jesus or the Holy Spirit) out of the picture? Could all of the Old Testament appearances of “God” be referring to Christ? No. Because Jesus Himself prayed to God the Father continually for power, for guidance, for comfort, to make requests. Jesus showed us how to be dependent on God through prayer. On the cross He said “Father, why have you forsaken me?” Is He talking to Himself about forsaking Himself? No.
At Jesus’ baptism, which is recorded in Luke 3:21 – 22, we have all 3 persons of the Trinity portrayed individually and separately at the same time:
“Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.””
This (and a few other similar instances) are the most explicit evidence we are going to get out of the Scriptures that there are 3 persons in the Godhead. But does that definitively say that they are all One? That by itself does not. Could there be 3 Gods? May it never be! The Deuteronomic Law is very clear that anyone who believes in a plurality of gods (more than one) is a blasphemer and idol worshiper.
The Shema found in Deteronomy 6:4, the most important Jewish doctrine that the Jews were told to teach to their children and write on the doorposts of their houses and on their clothes and to talk about all day and think about all night, says this: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.” There is almost no Jewish doctrine that is more important or more essential to that faith. This is why the Pharisees in Jesus’ day called Jesus a blasphemer for saying He was the the Son of God and calling Himself King of the Jews. Because God is one. If God is one, then He has no son. This, in fact, is the biggest problem that both Jews and Muslims have with Christianity. The words “God has no son” is written boldly across the top of the Dome of the Rock, which now stands where Solomon’s Temple used to stand in Jerusalem. Both religions are so crystal clear that there is only one God, that anyone who says differently is ridiculing the idea of God and deserves punishment.
So where does this leave Christians? Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit all share the same characteristics. We’re told that the Holy Spirit searches the deepest parts of the mind of God. What can do this but God Himself? We are also told that the Holy Spirit was sent by God (and Jesus) to be our counselor, to show us the way after Jesus has ascended to heaven. Wonderful Counselor is one of the names Isaiah gives in his prophecy about the coming Messiah that is so often quoted at Christmas time, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6. Jesus said, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” – John 14:9. Then Jesus goes on to say that “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” And again in John 10:30, Jesus states: “I and the Father are one.”
Likewise, the prophecies in the Old Testament that refer to God ruling His creation, and some of these prophecies are later clarified in the New Testament as Jesus ruling over that same creation. Mark 16:19 tells us that after Jesus ascended to heaven He sat down at the right hand of God. Stephen, the martyr, also later confirmed this: “when He was being stoned, and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” – Acts 7:56. So even though He and the Father are somehow one, they are also somehow distinct from one another.
So what is the Trinity? It is a core doctrine of Christianity that does not make sense to us because there is nothing in our world that resembles it. We cannot understand how three things can be one thing, or three persons one God, but the Bible clearly states this to be true. Any doctrine denying the 3-in-1ness of God is obviously false doctrine and not supported by Scripture, however it is at the same time not an idea that we can comprehend with our finite minds. We must stand in this case with David when considering the vastness of God and say, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it.” (Psalm 139:6).