By Mike Oppenheimer
From his book, The Trinity: The Triune Nature of God
If we are to grasp who God is, we must understand the core doctrine of the nature of God. Acceptance of the biblical view is what separates one from other views such as the polytheism found in Hinduism or the strict monotheism of Islam. How does God define Himself, and how do we explain and clarify the God of the Scriptures?
Since its beginning, the church (with the Scriptures as its foundation) has held that God is one, yet three persons in one. A lack of understanding on this subject does not justify the belief that God is Father only. We must acknowledge what has been communicated to us through the Scriptures—not that we have to understand it completely in every respect, but as believers, we need to apprehend what God has revealed through His holy Word.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Iglesia ni Christo, Christadelphians, and Oneness Pentecostals (Jesus Only) all have their own views of the character of the Son, all of which differ vastly from what the Bible reveals. A biblical understanding of the nature and character of the Son is crucial to understanding the nature and character of God.
The Trinity doctrine is criticized by many who claim it was developed hundreds of years after the apostles died and was not accepted until the fourth century. But an honest examination of church history clearly reveals the records of early church writings. As assaults against the primacy of the Scriptures were launched, godly men rose to the challenges to defend and affirm what the Scriptures themselves say.
Christology became the key to having a clear understanding of the nature and character of the Son. Was He merely a created being, or was and is He the Son of God, preexistent with the Father before He became incarnate as the man called Jesus?
The main argument used against the biblical view of the Trinity is that one cannot find the word “Trinity” in the Bible. Nor can there be found in Scripture the phrases “three persons” or “God the Son.” The fact is, the word “Bible” is not in the Bible either. We use this word to describe all sixty-six books that make up our Old and New Testaments. Even chapter and verse numbers are not found in the original writings but came many centuries later, yet we accept and use them. We use these terms to explain biblical terminology to make plain what is written.
The Trinity doctrine was drawn from the Scriptures out of necessity to answer a series of errors, the first which was called modalism (oneness), a heresy that sprung up in the middle of the second century.
The word Trinity comes from the Latin word trinitas, which means three-in-one or threefold, much like the Hebrew word echad (a plural unity). The Trinity is not describing three substances but three distinct identities (persons) existing simultaneously, all of whom share the one essence of God. This does not mean they are three Gods nor are the persons separate from the essence; rather they abide as one in it. God is triune as persons but in nature is One. Athanasius coined the phrase in his debates, “not dividing the substance nor confusing the persons.” In nature, they cannot be separated; in person, they have always been distinct in their identity but in relationship with each other. A. H. Strong stated:
In the nature of the one God there are three eternal distinctions . . . and these three are equal. . . . “The doctrine of the Trinity does not on one hand assert that three persons are united as one person, or three beings in one being, or three Gods in one God (tri-theism); nor on the other hand that God merely manifests himself in three different ways (modal trinity, or trinity of manifestations); but rather that there are three eternal distinctions in the substance of God.”1
While angels are called spirits, God is an uncreated Spirit, the One who created the angel spirits and the cause of all things existing, seen and unseen. God is not divisible among the distinctions of persons but indivisible. Distinguishing the differences of being and person can be related thus: “being” is what makes something what it is; it is its essential nature; “person” is what makes someone an individual identity. From the beginning, God has revealed Himself as one being that is plural in persons.
With no disrespect intended, in mathematical terms, the nature of God would not be 1+1+1 = 3, which would be tritheism, but rather 1x1x1 = 1, which would indicate a unified one. None of the persons of the Godhead can exist without the others. They all make up the one God in unity. However, if any one of the three appears, it is a God appearance. The essence is not wholly exclusive to only one of these at a time. Nor is it transferred from the Father to the Son (as if the Father becomes the Son or the Son becomes the Holy Spirit). All three have simultaneously existed together throughout eternity as the one God according to the Bible. Each person has a position and a relationship to each other.
Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (1903, Kindle edition), p.144, Kindle location 9717.
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(image from the cover of The Trinity by Mike Oppenheimer; taken from bigstockphoto.com; used with permission)