Many people dispute the doctrine of the Trinity because it seems mathematically impossible. Duane Adams responds to an apparent paradox.
Thumbing through a Christian magazine a while back, I found an article titled “Adding Up the Trinity.” Amateur theologian that I am, that title caught my attention.
The article asked—and answered—one basic question: Of what practical value is the biblical doctrine of the Trinity? Is it just an abstract proposition for theologians to argue about, or can it actually provide some meaningful guidance for your everyday life and mine?
Let me take a moment to explain what Christians mean by “the Trinity,” and then I’ll share my response to that question.
What Is The Trinity?
To begin with, the word Trinity does not appear in the Bible. The idea of the Trinity shows up very clearly in the Bible, but because the Bible does not give this idea a name, theologians have chosen to call it “the Trinity.”
The simplest way to state what the Trinity means is to say that the “Godhead” is made up of Three Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. However, this poses a problem, because Christians, like Jews and Muslims, claim to be monotheists—that is, we claim to believe in one God. But if God is Three Persons, how can we say that we believe in one God?
At first glance that sounds like a mathematical impossibility. However, an example from nature may help to clear up the problem. We all know that a clover leaf is one leaf, not three. The leaf has three segments—three separate leaflets, if you please. Nevertheless, we call it a clover leaf, not clover leaves.
God is something like that: three individual parts, but one God.
If you’re a Christian and you’ve studied your beliefs carefully, you perhaps have always thought that the idea of the Trinity is only a New Testament idea. However, it’s clearly suggested in the Old Testament, beginning with the first chapter of the Bible. Speaking of the creation of Adam and Eve, God said, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26). Notice the pronoun us. That’s plural, and it’s plural in the original Hebrew language as well.
The same pronoun is used in the story of the Tower of Babel. God said, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other” (Genesis 11:7, emphasis added). Compare that with verse 4, where the people said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city” (emphasis added). We can easily understand the people using the word us, referring to themselves, because there were lots of them. It’s interesting—and I believe significant—that the Bible uses the same word when quoting God.
Then there’s Isaiah 6:8. Isaiah had a vision of God in which God asked him the question, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (emphasis added). Same thing: God is plural.
Finally, there’s Deuteronomy 6:4, which says, “Here, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Your first reaction may be, There you have it! God is One. Interestingly, however, the Hebrew word is echad, which, like the English words flock and herd, is a singular word with a plural meaning. A flock of birds includes many birds, and a herd of cattle includes many bulls and cows.
God Is A Family
How many is a family? It all depends. If we think of the family as a unit, then it’s one. But if we think of it in terms of its individual members, then, by its traditional definition, it’s a mother, a father and however many children they have.
We can apply this same logic to the Trinity. God is a single unit that consists of Three Members, the Trinity. Thus, God is both singular and plural at the same time, which is no more of a mathematical problem than thinking of a family as both singular and plural at the same time.
Let’s carry this analogy of family a bit further. The word family carries with it the warm feeling of unconditional love and acceptance; and those of us who grew up in families like that have actually experienced this. If God is a Family, then God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit love each Other in much the same way that truly loving family members in our own world love each other. And that puts a whole new slant on the word Trinity. It’s really just another name for God’s loving Family.
Biblical Evidence Of The Trinity
What biblical evidence is there that the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit are Divine Persons like the Father?
Obviously, Jesus is a separate individual from the Father, and the Bible makes it clear that He is also fully God. John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word [Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (emphasis added). In several places, the New Testament tells us that Jesus was the Creator of the universe. (See, for example, John 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2.)
Also, several times Jesus spoke of Himself in terms that belong only to deity, which according to Jewish law would have been blasphemy had it not been true. For example, on one occasion, He said, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58, emphasis added). I am is a Hebrew term that means “God” (Exodus 3:14). It’s evident that the Jews understood Jesus’ use of this term to be a claim to His divinity because they picked up stones to stone Him—their punishment for blasphemy (John 8:59).
The Holy Spirit
With respect to the Holy Spirit, the question is not whether He is divine but whether He is a separate Person from the Father and the Son. The New Testament speaks of the Holy Spirit in language that clearly sets Him apart as an individual in His own right. For example, shortly before His death, when Jesus told His disciples that He would be leaving them, He added, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16, 17).
Other New Testament writers also speak of the Holy Spirit as a separate Person. For example, Paul said, “He who searches our hearts [God the Father] knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (Romans 8:27). Notice that the Spirit has a mind of His own and that He intercedes for us before God in the same way that Jesus does.
Finally, Jesus commanded His disciples to baptise “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). These words clearly set each One apart as a Person in His own right.
The question is, What difference does it make? Of what practical value to your everyday life and mine is this idea of one God in Three Persons?
A lot, actually.
Ask yourself, for example, who it was that died on the cross.
“Why, it was Jesus, of course!” you say. “Everyone knows that.”
Now think of this: If Jesus was truly God, then it was God who went to the cross, who took upon Himself the guilt of our sins and paid for them with His death. And that gives me a whole new way to think about God. It gives me a reason for loving Him that would never have occurred to me had I thought Jesus was only a human like the rest of us.
And with the idea that God is a Family comes another important truth that the Bible teaches:
You and I can become members of that Family. For we have been adopted into God’s Family as sons and daughters of the Father (Ephesians 1:5). Jesus is actually our Brother!
So the word Trinity, which all your life you thought was just another one of those ponderous terms that only the theological experts could ever care about, is really a name for God’s loving Family in heaven, of which you and I can be a part! (Though that doesn’t mean we’ll actually become divine, like the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.)
And it’s so easy to be a member of that Family. All you have to do is to tell Jesus that you would like to accept Him as your older Brother. He’ll take care of the rest.