Classic Theism: Basic Trinitarianism
Few doctrines are as central to Christianity as the doctrine of the Trinity. That God is Triune is not just a confession of faith but it is also at the core of our worship. We worship the true and living God and it is vital that we know who He is. To this end God has revealed who He is so that we might know Him and truly knowing Him is eternal life (John 17:3). We know and worship the one God who is three eternal persons.
Basic to Trinitarianism is monotheism. We believe that God is one (Deut. 6:4). There are not multiple gods or graduations of divinity or gods. God is the Lord of heaven and earth. He has created all things by the Word of His mighty power. No other being is like God (Is. 44:7). There is no god besides him (Is. 44:8). There is no other god before Him or after Him (Is. 43:10). God’s glory is unique and he does not share it with any other beings (Is. 42:8; 48:11).
Thus, when it comes to Trinitarianism we must be careful to distinguish the language of “being” from the language of “persons”. In human beings, our “being” and our “personhood” are unified. You are one being, and one person. There are other humans, but you yourself are only one. You have ‘human nature,’ or an essence or substance that makes you who you are. In the Creeds, in order to faithfully represent Scripture, we describe God to have one essence or substance. There is only one God. There is only one entity who has the divine nature: that is the living and true God.
However, the Bible also reveals that while there is one God, there are three eternal persons in the Godhead. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are not three gods but one. So for example, in our baptism we are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. While these three are clearly displayed as different persons in Scripture, note that Matthew 28:19 uses the singular “name”. You are not baptized three times and into three names but one time into one name.
Consider for example John 1:1-3 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” Here we have both the unity of the Godhead and the distinction of the persons. The Son of God, the Word, preexisted eternally before all of creation. Like God the Father, He is the Alpha and Omega (Rev. 1:8; 1:17-18; 21:6; 22:13). He is God, meaning He is of the same essence or being as God. He is by nature God.
God the Son is equal in power, glory and majesty with God the Father. Yet, he is distinct from the Father so that eternally He exists “with God” (John 1:1). In Isaiah, only God is the creator and in John 1:3; Col. 1:16; and Heb. 1:3, the Son of God is the one who creates. In Hebrews 1:3, the Son radiates the glory of God, which is a glory he had before the foundations of the world (John 17:5). He is the exact representation of God’s nature.
Describing the close personal eternal relationship between the Father and the Son, the eternal God (i.e. the Son) is describe being ‘in the Father’s bosom’ (John 1:18). The Son is described as both God but also as a distinct eternal person existing “with God” (i.e. God the Father). The Son is both God and with God (the Father) in eternal communion with Him. Thus we see both equality of the divine nature (both are God) and distinction of persons (Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Father, but they fellowshipped in union).
It is obvious in the gospels that Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit are distinct persons. This is evident in the baptism of Jesus. The Father speaks concerning the Son. The Spirit descends upon the Son. The Son is the one being baptized. Likewise in the resurrection, the God the Father declares the Son to be His Son. Later in Acts, to lie to God’s people is to lie to the Holy Spirit which is lying to God (Acts 5:3,4), indicating both the personhood and the deity of the Holy Spirit.
Basic Trinitarianism is that there are three persons in the godhead but one God. There is only one being or divine essence or divine glory. But there are three eternal persons. There are not three gods or three differing glories. In the same way: Father, Son, and Spirit are not various ways God reveals Himself. They are not modes of God’s appearing as if he sometimes manifests himself as one or the other.
One of the great summaries of this doctrine of the Trinity is the Athanasian Creed. Let us close with some excerpts from it to illustrate basic Trinitarianism:
That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence. For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.
What quality the Father has, the Son has, and the Holy Spirit has. The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, the Holy Spirit is uncreated. The Father is immeasurable, the Son is immeasurable, the Holy Spirit is immeasurable. The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, the Holy Spirit is eternal.
And yet there are not three eternal beings; there is but one eternal being. So too there are not three uncreated or immeasurable beings; there is but one uncreated and immeasurable being.
Similarly, the Father is almighty, the Son is almighty, the Holy Spirit is almighty. Yet there are not three almighty beings; there is but one almighty being. Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. Yet there are not three gods; there is but one God…
On the distinctions of the persons:
The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten from anyone. The Son was neither made nor created; he was begotten from the Father alone. The Holy Spirit was neither made nor created nor begotten; he proceeds from the Father and the Son. Accordingly there is one Father, not three fathers; there is one Son, not three sons; there is one Holy Spirit, not three holy spirits…
On its importance for worship and salvation:
So in everything, as was said earlier, we must worship their trinity in their unity and their unity in their trinity. Anyone then who desires to be saved should think thus about the trinity.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.