What Can We Know About the Holy Trinity?

What does the Word of God have to say about the subject of the Trinity, and what can safely be de­duced from these statements?

R.M. Johnston, Bible Teacher, Korean Union College

The purpose of this article is twofold. First, it will briefly review what the Word of God has to say about the subject of the Trinity, and what can safely be de­duced from these statements. Second, it will point out some dangers, answer some objec­tions, and conclude with some cautions.

Someone has rightly said that when we approach the doctrine of the Trinity, which has to do with the very nature of the living God Himself, we should take off our shoes, for we are on holy ground. It is here that the human intellect realizes its smallness. Zophar was right when he said: "Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know?" (Job 11:7, 8).

Ellen G. White with godly wisdom wrote: "No human mind can comprehend God. Let not finite man attempt to interpret Him. Let none indulge in speculation re­garding His nature. Here silence is elo­quence. The Omniscient One is above dis­cussion."—Testimonies, vol. 8, p. 279.

But some have speculated, and some are speculating now. They should know that arguments over the doctrine of the Trinity historically has been the cause of bloody wars and of deep schisms in the Christian church. It is wise to stay close to the plain statements of Scripture and not to speak when it is silent.

At the same time all Christians should know what the Bible has to say on the sub­ject. "The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our chil­dren forever, that we may do all the words of this law" (Dem. 29:29).

The term "Trinity" is nowhere to be found in the Bible. But the doctrine is there —this conclusion is inescapable. Nor need we be disturbed by the knowledge that certain words in 1 John 5:7, 8 are spurious additions that found their way into our King James Version from certain manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate, where they originated. For while it is true that no formal statement of the doctrine can be found in the most reliable Biblical man­uscripts, nevertheless a comparison of Scripture with Scripture makes any con­trary teaching untenable.

Many an undisputed doctrine rests on less ample direct scriptural evidence than that of the Trinity. After all, in the Bible we cannot find even one single formal argu­ment to prove the existence of God—for that we must look to the systematic theo­logians and philosophers. Rather, His exist­ence is taken for granted without any for­mal proof being considered necessary; contrary ideas are simply dismissed as fool­ish, the fruit of sin. It is the same with the doctrine of the Trinity.

The basic definition of the Trinity is "One God in three persons." This defini­tion contains two elements that seem con­tradictory to our finite minds. First it says there is one God. Then it says the one God is somehow three. There are three persons in the one.

This is not the only mystery of God in Scripture. How can Christ be both divine and human—wholly God, yet wholly man? How can God know the end from the be­ginning, and sovereignly rule the uni­verse according to His own holy will, and yet man have free will? The question is not what seems logical to our small human minds, but rather what does God reveal to us in His Word?

The Bible clearly teaches that there is only one God. This truth is emphasized in the Old Testament, in contrast to the re­ligions of the heathen who believed in a plurality of gods. Typical is Deuteronomy 6:4, "Hear, 0 Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord." The unity of God also is em­phasized in Exodus 20:1, 2; Isaiah 45:5, 6; 1 Kings 8:60; and many other places.

The New Testament, we find, reaffirms the unity of God. In Mark 12:29 Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:4. Paul in 1 Tim­othy 2:5 says clearly: "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (see also Gal. 3:20; James 2:19; 1 Cor. 8:6; and Eph. 4:4-6).

At the same time, the whole Bible teaches the threeness of God—that He is three in one. This is hinted at in the Old Testament and clearly revealed in the New Testa­ment. After the nature of God was illumi­nated by the first coming of Christ, these Old Testament hints could be noted.

At the time of the Creation the Godhead in divine council used the plural pronoun in speaking of Himself (see Gen. 1:26; 11:7). In Hebrew the word for God in Genesis 1 is 'Elohim. Anyone familiar with Hebrew grammar, and who believes in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, can see the profound significance of this name. In Hebrew the verb must agree with its sub­ject in both gender and number. That is, a plural noun must normally be used with a plural verb, and a singular noun with a singular verb. The word 'Elohim is remark­able in two ways. First, in form it is a plural word; the ending "-im" is a plural ending. And yet the verb that is used with 'Elohim is not plural, as we would expect it to be, but rather singular! What could show more clearly that the three persons of God act as a unity? A plural noun used with a singular verb! (Some would claim that the word 'Elohim is a vestige of an older polytheism, but to such persons an investigation of Bible teachings, such as this article, would prove little anyway. And in any case, their theory fails to explain the singular verb.)

There are other hints. The angels in Isaiah 6:3 sing "Holy" three times, and again in Isaiah 6:8 God uses the plural pro­noun of Himself. In Isaiah 48:16 we find revealed the Word, the Lord God, and the Spirit of God. Isaiah foreshadows much of the New Testament.

When we come to the New Testament the light shines brighter. Christ has come and illuminated the nature of God. Throughout the Bible the words of God, the attributes of God, and the names of God are applied to the Father and to the Son and to the Spirit.

Each member of the Godhead cooper­ated in such works as the creation of the world, the creation of man, the resurrec­tion of man, the resurrection of Christ and of all men, the inspiration of Scripture, the authority of the ministry, sanctifica­tion, et cetera. All share the divine attri­butes—all are eternal, omniscient, omnip­otent, omnipresent, holy. And each one is called God.

Furthermore, in the New Testament we find the so-called Trinitarian formula sev­eral times repeated. These are passages in which Father, Son, and Spirit are all men­tioned together (see Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 2:18-22; Eph. 4:4-6; 1 Peter 1:2, 21, 22; 2 Thess. 2:13, 14; and Heb. 9:14).

Those who object to the doctrine of the Trinity usually attack the deity of Christ. But this truth is one of the clearest in the New Testament. Jesus never refused to ac­cept worship of Himself as God, although it might have saved Him much trouble had He done so (see John 20:28 and Matt. 16:16). He applied divine names and titles to Himself (see John 8:58: compare Exo­dus 3:14). The New Testament writers re­gard Jesus in the same way (see 1 John 5:20; Titus 2:13; John 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:16, in some manuscripts). Even the Old Testa­ment is clear about this. Isaiah prophesies: "His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlast­ing Father, The Prince of Peace" (Isa. 9:6).

But we must not suppose that the three Persons are merely three names for the same thing. While God is one being, the three Persons are distinct, and must he dis­tinguished. Else, when the Son was on earth there was no God in heaven. But we find Jesus praying to the Father as our heavenly Father. And the Spirit of the Lord was upon Him (Luke 4:18).

The most striking proof of distinction between the three persons of the Trinity is found in the record of the baptism of Jesus, in Matthew 3:16, 17, Mark 1:10-11, and Luke 3:21, 22. As the Son rose from the water, the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father was heard from heaven. Thus all three Per­sons simultaneously manifested themselves distinctly.

When we assemble all these scriptures, the conclusion is inescapable that God is one, and yet He is three. "Our God in three persons" is the best definition. This is the doctrine of the Trinity. You say it is hard to understand? You say it is not logi­cal? How can three be one and one be three? Yes, it is hard, perhaps impossible, to understand. But this fact should not be dis­turbing. On the contrary, if I could per­fectly understand the nature of God, that would be real cause for being disturbed. A God whom man could perfectly understand would be too small a God. If I could squeeze God inside my feeble little mind I would be as great and as wise as God. And how could I worship such a God? Thank God, He is greater than my thoughts, higher than my logic. Let us fall down and worship the Infinite God, the Holy Trinity. Let us be humble before Him.

There still remain problems to be solved from the Bible. Granted that God is a Trin­ity, what are the relationships between the three persons of the Trinity? Here we must be cautious. The fact is, the relationships are so close that it is dangerous to describe them too exactly. Serious errors and dis­putes have arisen because of such attempts. But some facts can fairly and safely be in­ferred from the Bible.

The first fact already has been noted. God has one essence but three distinct per­sons (see John 10:30; 14:16, 17; 17:5, 11, 21, 22, 23). We had better not say "three bodies"; such wording is not founded on Scripture, not supported by the Spirit of Prophecy, and detracts from the Deity.

The second fact is that all the Persons are coeternal. That is, all of them have always existed, and the Father cannot be said to have been in existence before the Son or the Spirit. All are timeless (see Col. 1:17; John 1:1, Rev. 22:13; compare Isa. 41:4).

All three Persons are coequal. That is, they all have equal rank and dignity (see John 5:23; 14:1, 11; 1 Cor. 12:4-6; Matt. 11:27; 1 Cor. 2:11). Of Christ, especially note the word "all" in Col. 2:9. We must allow, however, that Christ voluntarily and temporarily subordinated Himself at His incarnation (Phil. 2:7, 8; John 17:4, 5; etc.).

In connection with these points several statements are worth quoting from the serv­ant of the Lord. "Christ is the pre-existent, self-existent Son of God. . . . There never was a time when He was not in close fel­lowship with the eternal God. . . . He was equal with God, infinite and omnipotent. . . . He is the eternal, self-existent Son. . . . From everlasting He was the Mediator of the covenant. . . . The existence of Christ before His incarnation is not measured by figures. . . . In Christ is life, original, un­borrowed, underived."—Evangetism, pp. 615, 616. There also are statements about the Holy Spirit and the Trinity in general.

The next fact inferred from Scripture is that there is some sort of "priority" among the persons of the Godhead. Of course, this is not a priority in respect to time, for God is outside of time, except when He chooses to break into it. He is the God of time, and therefore He is above and beyond it. But what do we mean by this priority? In the terms of Scripture, the Son is begotten by the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from both. Man has no vocabulary adequate to describe the precise relationships of the members of the Trinity—even if we dared claim a full understanding. Hence, when we borrow terms from the popular theolo­gians we must take care not to invite classi­fication of ourselves as Arians or others whose beliefs about the Godhead do not bear the test of Scripture. However, if we allow ourselves to borrow the popular terms, the internal functions of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are, respectively, generation, filiation, and procession. These three terms express what we mean by prior­ity. Note these texts: The Father-1 Co­rinthians 15:27, 28; Philippians 2:11; 1 Co­rinthians 11:3; 1 Corinthians 3:23. The Son —John 14:28; 12:49. The Spirit—John 15: 26; 14:26. The statements about the Son may be related to His incarnation. But the messenger of the Lord seemed to indicate that the Son was always such, even before the Incarnation. So again we say, the Father eternally begets (generates) the Son, who eternally filiates.

We usually assume that Romans 11:36 refers to the Father, but a comparison with Colossians 1:16 shows that what is said there is equally true of the Son. Here is a case in which it is best not to draw a strict distinction between the attributes of the three Persons. The Lord our God is one Lord.

It has been said that the three Persons have different functions in relation to hu­manity. Some say that the Father is respon­sible for Creation, the Son for redemption, and the Spirit for sanctification. But we already have seen that all share in all these works. It is probably incorrect to make such a division, or at least to emphasize it.

Human logic, as we have seen, raises ob­jections to this great doctrine. This need not trouble us, but perhaps we can give a few illustrations that will meet human logic on its own level, thus helping those who like to have everything reasonable.

How can three be one? In mathematics, 1 plus I plus 1 equals 3. We are not obliged to reduce God to mathematical terms, but perhaps this answer will help: God is not 1 plus 1 plus 1, but rather 1 times 1 times 1. The three make God more intensely one. Each of the three is the whole, not a part. Each is necessary to the whole. As an illus­tration, compare: height times length times width equal matter, or space. If one is missing, there is no space, or no matter.

How can one be plural? In human lan­guage this is possible. There are many illus­trations, although of course they are im­perfect. In Genesis 2:24 we read that man and wife shall be "one" flesh. Of course, this is an imperfect illustration, because the two persons do not have one essence; but they are said to be one flesh. The motto of the United States is E Pluribus Unurn­out of many, one. Fifty States, but one nation "indivisible." So the word "one" can include plurality.

Augustine came close to proving the Trinity by pure reason. 1 John 4:16 says "God is love." Malachi 3:6 and other texts say God is unchanging. Therefore God always had the attribute of love. But there can be no love where there is no one to love. One alone cannot love. There must be a Lover, a Beloved, and a Spirit of Love. Where love is there must be a Trinity. God is an eternal fellowship. So reasoned Au­gustine. Prior to Creation, God did not exist in solitary aloneness.

But in the last analysis, we do not believe the doctrine merely because it is reason­able, but because it is scriptural. Analogies are helpful illustrations, but not proofs in the strictest sense.

There are some problem texts. Most of them have to do with the deity of Christ. But since a detailed examination of that question is outside the scope of this article, the reader is referred elsewhere. Others have dealt ably with the subject. See The Seventh-Day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 5, pp. 911-919; also the articles by Wadi Farag, by 0. H. Christensen, and by others, which have appeared in THE MINISTRY.

It is necessary to warn against certain errors that have been arising again and again all down through the annals of church history. God is one and God is three. It is necessary to keep these two truths in balance and to hold them simul­taneously. If we overemphasize God's one­ness, the result is Unitarianism. If we over­emphasize God's threeness, the result is the error of tritheism, or the belief in three Gods. A milder form of Unitarianism arising from a misunderstanding of the re­lation between the three Persons is Arian­ism, in which the deity of Christ is denied or downgraded, and the personality of the Holy Spirit is denied. This view is named after Arius, who in the fourth century pre­cipitated one of the greatest controversies in church history. He maintained that Christ was a creature, though the first and greatest of God's creations. In other words, he misinterpreted Christ's filiation and the Father's generation. He placed man's mental limitations over God's usage of man's language, and the result was a down­grading of the self-existent Christ.

Some great saints have leaned mildly toward a form of Arianism. Perhaps we should not condemn them. They fixed their minds upon the scriptures that speak of Christ as the Son, begotten of the Father, the first-born of every creature, and so forth. They failed to give sufficient weight to other texts, such as those we have stud­ied in this article, which would have rounded out the picture for them. John Mil­ton was one of these. It also was one of the characteristic beliefs held by the Christian Connection, an earnest group of Christians in nineteenth-century America. From them and from their influence this mild form of pious Arianism, if we may call it that, passed to many of our own early pioneers, and some thought of it as one of our dis­tinctive doctrines. It held a dominant place until it was corrected by the messenger of the Lord. These good people were earnest Bible students, and that was their strength; but they were not systematic theologians, and that may have been a weakness. As time went on, the theological contradic­tion between their true faith in Christ and their inherited anti-Trinitarianism became apparent, as they would be the first to ac­knowledge. But there was nothing wrong with their basic faith. They were pioneers, not pedants. They were what the hour needed.

Another error is called Sabellianism, named after Sabellius, an early heretic who taught that Father, Son, and Spirit were merely three successive manifestations of God. That is, he said God is but one per­son who shows Himself in three ways, which we call Father, Son, and Spirit. Again, we need only point to the fact that the Son prayed to the Father, and to re­member the scene of Christ's baptism. Other heresies concerning the Trinity can be studied in any book on early church history of systematic theology.

One last caution may be appropriate. Remembering that we are on holy ground, we had best be careful about using overly human terms in reference to God, such as speaking of His "body" and so forth. Even some of the expressions found in Scripture may be merely accommodations to our limited human understanding. As far as physical form is concerned, God is able at will to assume any form He chooses. The Holy Spirit appeared one time in the form of a dove, and on a different occasion He took the appearance of tongues of fire dis­tributed over the heads of the apostles. We need not assume that either of these physi­cal manifestations reveals anything about the Spirit's essence. His real nature is un­knowable. Some Biblical expressions are merely figures of speech, such as "Our God is a consuming fire."

In the case of the Son, of course, it is different. We know that He has assumed human nature for all eternity, and that He now has a resurrected, glorified, spiritual body, such as we will have if we come up in the first resurrection. But Christ's human nature is added to His divine nature, which is in no way diminished, But here we enter into a mystery.

Let us hear the conclusion of the matter.

There is only one God. But the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. These share all the divine attributes.

Therefore: (1) There is in God but one indivisible essence. (2) In God there are three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit. These are not merely modes of manifesta­tion, but are distinct persons. (3) The whole undivided essence of God belongs to each of the three persons. (4) There is a certain order in the operation of the three —1. Father; 2. Son; 3. Spirit. (5) Certain personal attributes distinguish the three—generation, filiation, and procession, but we must be cautious not to place shallow human interpretations on the words when used to describe God. (6) These attributes, or operations, are all eternal. There never was a time when the Son and the Spirit did not exist. (7) The Trinity is a great mys­tery. I sincerely hope, however, that this article may have helped to make it a more understandable mystery. For an expansion of these concluding points into technical detail, beyond what has been offered here, the reader is directed to one of the larger works on systematic theology, such as Berk­hof's.

I would like to add a footnote concern­ing the proper forms in prayer. We should pray to the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. But, of course, God hears any sincere prayer, regardless of form. Nevertheless, Jesus tells us to pray in His name. The above form is proper and the normal one.

The question is asked: "Then, is it wrong to address our prayers to the Son, as when children pray 'Dear Jesus'?" No, it is not wrong. This is done in the Bible. As Stephen died, being full of the Holy Spirit, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:59). The early Christians called upon Christ's name (see Acts 9:14). One may pray to any one of the persons of the Godhead, or to all of them. But the normal form, especially for public worship, is to address prayers to the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit. Let prayer be the language of the heart. Sometimes we pray the Father to send His Spirit among us. But if, through repetition, this becomes a dead form, instead pray: Come, Thou Holy Spirit, Come! The Father and the Son will send Him.

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R.M. Johnston, Bible Teacher, Korean Union College

November 1964

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