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What is the Trinity?

This week our question comes from a myriad of sources. I've had the question sent to me on the Internet perhaps eight times and I've been asked in Sunday School easily as many times. "What is the trinity?"

Let me begin by sharing that this question has long haunted the church. The debate about the trinity began well before AD 215 and continued until 381 at a meeting of church leaders in Constantinople where the "doctrine of the trinity" was officially adopted by the "orthodox" church. However, the issues surrounding the trinity have never really been put to rest.

The word "trinity" was first coined by Tertullian, a writer in 215. However, his description would hardly be accepted today by orthodox Christianity. According to his writings the trinity meant that God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit were three different modes of the same "substance." In other words, God was the creator, God came to earth in the form of Jesus, and when Jesus left the earth God then worked with the church and individuals in the form of the Holy Spirit.

In the early 300s a group of bishops of the church began in earnest to argue about the definition of the trinity. According to Arius, a scholar and minister, Jesus had not existed for all eternity, but was created by God; further, Jesus was divine but was not deity. Athanasius took the opposite view and claimed that Jesus and God were coequal, coeternal, and of the same "substance," but with distinct personalities. Finally, Eusibius purported that Jesus was created by God before time and eternity and that he was of a similar "substance," but was not exactly the same "substance" as God. In 325 the vote of the church was to adopt the view of Athanasius that God and Jesus were the same but different. In 381 the Holy Spirit was "added" to this formula to complete the doctrine of the trinity.

In sum, the trinity is the church doctrine that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are the same coequal, coeternal, and deity and yet each is different in personality (and perhaps function).

So, where is it in the Bible?

A search through the Bible reveals the word trinity is not in scripture. Since Jesus was not yet born, there is no references to him in the Old Testament (to those insisting the messianic passages makes reference to the trinity, note that the messiah is never equated with God, but typically with David). Thus the doctrine of the trinity comes exclusively from the New Testament.

Passages used to support this doctrine include John 10.30 "I and the Father are one," and several Pauline passages including 1 Corinthians 12.4-6, "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone." Here Paul uses each of the "persons" of the trinity to assert the unity of the church.

Certainly there is more evidence than this to support the trinity. Thomas called Jesus "My Lord and my God" in John 20.28 and Matthew recorded the trinitarian formula ("Father, Son, and Holy Spirit") in 28.19.

And yet there is a good bit that denies the validity of this church doctrine. Paul writes in Philippians (2.6) "Though he [Jesus] was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited." The book of Hebrews insists that Jesus is subservient to the Father. Further, in the New Testament there are three assertions (Romans 3.30; Galatians 3.20; James 2.19) that God is one (as in singular, only, and without plurality). However, the most convincing passages against this doctrine is found both in Mark and Luke. There Jesus says, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" thus Christ himself seems to deny equality with God (Mark 10.18; Luke 18.19).

And yet, there is mystery. Mystery is that which is not understood and the trinity is certainly a fine example. Scripture seems both to support and repudiate this teaching and therein lies the mystery. Since 325 the church has embraced this mystery as a tenet of the faith, and though this little-understood doctrine has regularly been attacked, it is likely the church will continue to embrace the teaching.

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