Trinity. It’s just a word for most of us these days. A place-name perhaps? Right now, a property developer is building the Trinity Point marina and housing estate not far from my home. My mother-in-law attends church in an Adelaide suburb called Trinity Gardens. And then there’s Trinity, one of the leading characters in the Matrix movies of my formative years, not to mention those rambunctious Trinity spaghetti Westerns from the 1970s.
But none of these uses of the word indicate its true meaning or give a hint of the centuries of conflict before it became a mainstream Christian teaching. Put simply, “Trinity” (sometimes referred to as the Godhead) is a belief in the Christian faith which expresses that God is One as well as simultaneously being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Now, if you’re at all logical or mathematical, you’ll read that last statement and immediately visualise an equation in your head that looks something like this: 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. Which, of course, doesn’t compute. How can God be both Three and One? Some spiritual seekers write off Christianity at this point: If it makes no sense at its very foundation, how can the rest of its teachings be reliable?
But if we understand God as being infinite and outside our space-time continuum, it’s not such a huge stretch to seek alternative equations at the edges of mathematics. 0 + 0 + 0 = 0, for example—yes, that equates correctly. Or, better yet, using infinity symbols, ∞ + ∞ + ∞ = ∞. Surely, any God worth worshipping cannot be quantified.
Theologian Robert McIver in his co-authored tertiary text Meaning for the New Millennium notes that physics likewise provides illustrations for the Three-in-One God: “. . . objects are said to have three dimensions—height, depth, width—each of these dimensions is completely separate and totally fills the object, but there is only one object. Or . . . light itself, which according to one set of data acts like waves, and which according to another set of data acts like a stream of particles. It appears to be two things at once.”
Many teachers and leaders in the Christian church have preferred a more down-home approach to explaining the Trinity, although all of them confess that their metaphors fall short of capturing the full grandeur of God. According to legend, Patrick of Ireland (the man who was later canonised as Saint Patrick by the Catholic Church), for example, drew attention to a clover leaf (or shamrock), noting how it is simultaneously three leaves and one leaf. Or, in more recent times, I heard a YouTube preacher claim that understanding the Trinity is “simple as apple pie”—you can cut the pie into three slices, but, while the crust remains separate, the runny fruit filling recombines as soon as the knife is removed. It’s both three slices and still very much one unified pie.
But are these just clever word games used by Christians or does the Bible in fact teach the doctrine of the Trinity? Here we run into trouble immediately, because the Bible does not use the word Trinity at all. Neither does it include focused discussion or explanation of the Three-in-One nature of God. Instead we must rely on hints and passing mentions throughout both the Old and New Testaments, piecing them together and identifying patterns, without becoming arrogant about our conclusions. I mean, really!—who are we to think that we can ever fully explain God? Our best efforts are only a glimpse. So, humility firmly in hand, let’s take a look.
The essence of Oneness
To this day, an observant Jew will daily repeat the creed known as the Shema (the Hebrew word for “hear”), which begins, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). This is just a single example of the many biblical references to God’s Oneness—an important distinction to make in the ancient world, where many gods were worshipped. But, curiously, the very first name of God used in the Bible—right back in the scripture of Genesis 1:1 where the creation of “the heavens and the earth” is described—is Elohim, which literally means “Gods”—plural. We get hints of this in the Bible’s English translations when we read verses like, “Then God [Elohim] said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image . . .” (Genesis 1:26, italics supplied).
The complexity of Oneness is also hinted at in Genesis 1:24, where we read, “. . . a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (italics supplied). The ideal “soul mate” intimacy of marriage, where an old couple will finish each other’s sentences, is a faint echo of the Oneness and tri-unity we see in the triune God—that is, the three aspects of God represented by the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
Christmas is coming
Yes, at the time of writing it’s a little early in the year to start thinking about tinsel and carols, but it’s nothing compared to the thousands of years the ancients spent waiting for the birth of the promised Messiah—the very first Christmas. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, later immortalised in Handel’s Messiah, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
In these prophetic words, written about 700 years before Jesus’ birth, we see clearly that the promised Son is also called “Mighty God” and “Everlasting Father”. The Messiah was to be not just the Son of God, but God Himself, to the point that it becomes hazy as to whether He is Son or Father.
While Jesus was careful in what He revealed about Himself during His earthly ministry—the strictly monotheistic Jewish leaders of His day were always looking for an opportunity to take Him out—He did identify Himself clearly as God a number of times. Take this declaration, for example: “‘Very truly I tell you . . . before Abraham was born, I am!’” (John 8:58). His apparently ungrammatical use of “I am” invokes a crucial Old Testament story where God articulates His Name: “Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?’
“God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I am has sent me to you”’” (Exodus 3:13,14, italics added).
So, when Jesus said He is “I am”, coupled with His assertion that He, a man in His 30s, was around before the time of Abraham, 2000 years prior, He was claiming to be God Himself, existing outside the human timescale.
And on the issue of Oneness, Jesus was again startlingly clear: “I and the Father are one,” He said to the Jewish leaders (John 10:30). And to His disciples: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
But doesn’t the Trinity also include the Holy Spirit? Yes. Genesis 1:2 mentions “the Spirit of God” or, in Hebrew, Ruach Elohim. Ruach means “breath” or “wind.” Even in English we get a whiff of this literal meaning behind “Spirit” when we use words like “respiration”, “inspire” or “expire”.
But while the Old Testament uses the expression “Holy Spirit” more than once, it is in the New Testament where we most clearly see the Father, Son and Holy Spirit with distinct roles. At Jesus’ baptism, for example: “As soon as Jesus was baptised, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16,17). So here we see Jesus, a human, identified as the Son by His Father. We also see the Holy Spirit, differentiated from both the Father and Son by His dove-form and by the fact that He is in physical contact with Jesus, in contrast to the Father’s “voice from heaven”. To this day, following this precedent and in keeping with Jesus’ instructions (see Matthew 28:19), Christians of all stripes baptise with the words, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit was also present at Pentecost, where the disciples who would found the early church began their preaching and ministry after a miraculous event allowed them to speak in the languages of many different nations.
Jesus tried to explain the different roles of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to His disciples, but they had trouble comprehending it at first. He promised them the presence and help of the “Comforter” or “Advocate”. Consider John 14:26, for example: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” Here, again, we see all three Persons of the Trinity: the Father, the Son (Jesus, who is speaking) and the Holy Spirit.
So much more
This article is very much an introduction to what the Bible says about the Trinity—please don’t take it a comprehensive study. There is so much more to explore. Jesus’ role as Creator, Word, Messiah and Lamb of God, for example (see John 1, a chapter you could easily spend the rest of your life unpacking); the biblical evidence that the Holy Spirit is indeed a Person with feelings and sovereignty, not a nebulous presence or force; or the truth of a loving, heartbroken Father, rather than the myth of a vengeful, bloodthirsty God who needed to be appeased by Jesus’ sacrificial death. Get hold of a rigorous modern translation of the Bible in the language of your heart, pray for insight and read—reflect, compare, research and pray some more. Seek the advice of godly and mature Christians to help you with the difficult parts. And don’t be afraid of not knowing. Our God is a God of infinite mystery—we can spend eternity getting to know Him.
The apostle Paul ended one of his letters with the following trinitarian blessing—it seems particularly apt here, too: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
Curious about some of the key beliefs of Christianity? Check out the other articles in our Fundamentals series to see if you can find the answers you need.
Kent Kingston is the former editor of Signs of the Times. He lives with his family in NSW’s Lake Macquarie region.