What is the Trinity?

Introduction

This paper presents a Biblical doctrine of the Triune Godhead. First, the importance of the doctrine itself is examined along with practical ramifications for the Christian life. Next, the historical development of the Godhead is presented and various heretical movements are analyzed. Contemporary issues in the doctrine are also examined. A personal theology of the Triune Godhead follows which presents primarily conclusions, not arguments, to avoid repetition. Arguments supporting the personal theology are provided in a biblical theology of the doctrine itself from Scripture. This biblical theology is thematic, and traces three themes through Scripture; (1) God is one, (2) God is three and (3) these Three are one. Due to space limitations, this is not an exhaustive biblical theology.

This paper argues for the following definition of the Triune Godhead and will demonstrate this doctrine is fully orthodox, supported by the church fathers and most importantly by Scripture;

Within the one Being that is God, there exists three eternally co-equal and co-eternal persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

CHAPTER 1

IMPORTANCE OF THE DOCTRINE

God revealed Himself in Triune form – thus we must assume it is vital to our faith.[1] There are several reasons why the doctrine of the Trinity is absolutely central to all other Christian doctrines.

Revelation

The God the Father always works through God the Son, and the Son does His work in human hearts only through the God the Holy Spirit.[2] Their roles are absolutely complementary in every respect; revelation cannot happen without the triune Godhead. “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,” (2 Pet 1:21). Men are saved only by Christ and recorded divine revelation from God through the working of the Holy Spirit.

Redemption

God the Father planned redemption in eternity past (Eph 1:3-5), God the Son is the means of that salvation (Eph 1:9-10) and the God the Holy Spirit effectually calls sinners to repentance. The Christian Savior must be Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Identity

The triune Godhead is the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity.[3] No false religion can compare to it; it is novel and absolutely unique. It is what makes a Christian a Christian. “To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?” (Isa 40:18, KJV).

Worship

Christian worship is inherently Trinitarian, whether one even realizes or acknowledges it. Paul opens his epistle to the Ephesians by acknowledging the triune Godhead; “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” (Eph 1:3). Even in prayer, man “comes to God the Father, pleading the name of Christ, and is taught how to pray aright by the Holy Spirit.”[4]

Sanctification

God chose sinners before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4) to be saved by the work of Christ (Eph 1:7-10) and be sanctified by the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18). It is the Holy Spirit which works in the hearts of men, both to effectually call and to sanctify those whom God, by His grace, saves.

Unity

The preceding have served to demonstrate the unfathomable unity of purpose among the persons of the Godhead. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are never in conflict and each works with the other towards one unified, common purpose.

CHAPTER 2

HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT

There are five basic phases in the historical development of the Triune God, each often overlapping with one another; the economic concept, dynamic monarchism, modalism, Arianism and orthodoxy.[5] The very early church in general did not concern itself with deep theological reflection; therefore these various heretical doctrines generally emerged in conflict with orthodoxy in the mid to late 2nd century and early 3rd century. The church was chiefly concerned with basic survival amidst intense periods of persecution. “The process of organizing itself and propagating the faith and even the struggle for survival in a hostile world precluded much serious doctrinal reflection.”[6]

Economic Concept

This economic development dealt with the roles of the specific persons of the Godhead rather than the ontological development and its implications. Early church fathers who developed the economic concept include Hippolytus, Tertullian and Justin Martyr. Their conclusion was that God consists of one identical substance which is extended into three distinct manifestations.[7]

Justin Martyr, writing in the mid 2nd century likened this to one fire kindled from another; “which is not lessened when it has kindled [another], but remains the same; and that which has been kindled by it likewise appears to exist by itself, not diminishing that from which it was kindled.”[8]

Tertullian, writing sometime between 197-217 A.D., characterized this as a unity of substance and remarked, “Even when the ray is shot from the sun, it is still part of the parent mass; the sun will still be in the ray, because it is a ray of the sun—there is no division of substance, but merely an extension.”[9] Tertullian went on, “the material matrix remains entire and unimpaired, though you derive from it any number of shoots possessed of its qualities.”[10]

Tertullian actually formulated the concept of later orthodoxy, “one essence in three persons” in his attack on modalism. In his polemic on Praxeas, written no earlier than 208 A.D., he wrote again of a unity of substance which was distributed into a Trinity;

placing in their order the three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.[11]

This economic concept of the Trinity is orthodox but incomplete. Erickson lamented about a “certain vagueness” in the economic concept of the Trinity. “Any effort to come up with a more exact understanding of just what it means will prove disappointing.” [12]

Dynamic Monarchism

This concept was an attempt by the early church to actually define the relationship between Christ and God. The main proponent of monarchism was Theodotus, who brought the doctrine to Rome about 190 A.D. He sought to preserve the supremacy of God the Father at the expense of God the Son.[13] Jesus was not really God; God was simply working through Him.

Theodotus “did not deny Christ’s birth from a virgin . . . but he did deny his divinity, teaching that he was a mere man upon whom the Holy Spirit descended at the time of his baptism, in consequence of which he became the Christ, received power to fulfill his special mission and by his righteousness was raised above all other men. The descent of the Holy Spirit, however, although raising him to a very exalted position, did not make him divine.”[14] The concept was that Christ was elevated to an exalted position, a sort of “moral oneness” with God.[15]

A key proof-text for this concept was 1 Cor 5:19,[16] where Paul wrote “in Christ God was reconcilingthe world to himself.” Christ was not divine; God was simply using Christ as the means to achieve His ends. This view was condemned by the Christian community. Dionysius, the Bishop of Rome from approximately 259-263 A.D., held monarchist views. Eusebius recorded that Dionysius held, “contrary to the teaching of the Church, low and degraded views of Christ, namely, that in his nature he was a common man.” The catholic church (in the original sense of the term) moved energetically to combat this heresy, summoning Dionysius to a council to explain himself. Eusebius contemptuously referred to him as “a despoiler of the flock of Christ.”[17] Monarchism was never a widespread movement and was a relatively isolated phenomenon.[18]

Modalism

Erickson wrote that modalism was “a genuinely unique, original and creative conception . . . a brilliant breakthrough.”[19] It advocated the view that God was really just one person with three different names, roles or activities. Father, Son and the Holy Spirit are identical, successive revelations of the same person.[20] Like a skilled thespian, God simply plays different roles at different times.

Tertullian, writing his treatise against Praxeas sometime after 208 A.D., observed dryly,

“Praxeas did a twofold service for the devil at Rome: he drove away prophecy, and he brought in heresy.”[21]

Tertullian boldly claimed that Satan himself was working through Praxeas in his modalistic interpretation of the Trinity.

“Out of this doctrine of the unity he may fabricate a heresy. He says that the Father Himself came down into the Virgin, was Himself born of her, Himself suffered, indeed was Himself Jesus Christ.”[22]

He went on to state,

So it is either the Father or the Son, and the day is not the same as the night; nor is the Father the same as the Son, in such a way that Both of them should be One, and One or the Other should be Both.[23]

Employing a legal tactic of positing and answering modalistic objections, Tertullian continued,

Well, but “with God nothing is impossible.” True enough; who can be ignorant of it? Who also can be unaware that “the things which are impossible with men are possible with God?” The foolish things also of the world hath God chosen to confound the things which are wise.” We have read it all. Therefore, they argue, it was not difficult for God to make Himself both a Father and a Son, contrary to the condition of things among men. For a barren woman to have a child against nature was no difficulty with God; nor was it for a virgin to conceive. Of course nothing is “too hard for the Lord.”

But if we choose to apply this principle so extravagantly and harshly in our capricious imaginations, we may then make out God to have done anything we please, on the ground that it was not impossible for Him to do it. We must not, however, because He is able to do all things suppose that He has actually done what He has not done.[24]

The modalistic conception of the Trinity was indeed novel. It solved any number of problems; both the unity of the Godhead and the full deity of all three persons are perfectly preserved by it. Ultimately, however, Scripture condemned this heresy to the flames. Too many texts spoke far too explicitly of the Trinity as distinct persons for the church to accept; such as Christ’s baptism, Christ speaking of the coming of the Spirit and His prayers that were specifically addressed to the Father.[25]

Arianism

The Arians, like the modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses, went a different route. Christ, they asserted, was not equal with God or even God at all – He was a creature brought into being by God. They felt that elevating Christ to the level of God the Father was, in effect, abandoning monotheism. They went further than the monarchists by emphatically declaring Christ was no more than a mere creature. However, from the beginning the church had worshipped Christ as God! The stage was set for a divisive battle. Athanasius considered Arianism to be a “harbinger of the Antichrist” and the daughter of Satan.[26] Summarizing their teaching, he wrote,

God was not always a Father; but once God was alone, and not yet a Father, but afterwards He became a Father. The Son was not always; for, whereas all things were made out of nothing, and all existing creatures and works were made, so the Word of God Himself was made out of nothing, and once He was not, and He was not before His origination, but He as others had an origin of creation.[27]

The church was quite rightly concerned with condoning the worship of a mere man. Athanasius wrote against the Arian heresy with great enthusiasm, judging it to be a theology which had been “vomited forth” and was at odds with Scripture and “alien to the divine oracle.”[28] Arians took Proverbs 8:22-23 as one of their primary proof-texts;

“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.”

The Arians examined texts such as this and others[29] and concluded it may be appropriate to call Christ a god, but he was certainly not the same as God the Father.[30] Arias himself explained,

God himself is inexpressible to all beings. He alone has none equal to him or like him, none of like glory. We call him unbegotten on account of the one who by nature is begotten; we sing his praises as without beginning because of the one who has a beginning. We worship him as eternal because of him who was born in the order of time. The one without beginning established the Son as the beginning of all creatures.[31]

Therefore, according to Arians, Christ Himself could not even fathom God’s essence. He was a mere creature; an exalted creature, to be sure – but a creature nonetheless. Church historian Justo Gonzalez summarized by observing, “if asked to draw a line between God and creation, Arians would draw that line so as to include the Word in creation.”[32]

Orthodoxy

The Arian heresy prompted the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the first ever ecumenical council of the early church. Prior to Nicea, church disputes had been settled over time with long debate culminating with an eventual consensus. After the conversion of Constantine, for the first time the authority of the state was invoked to settle a theological issue. Advocates of particular viewpoints could, for the very first time, forsake lengthy explanations of their positions in favor of simply convincing imperial authority. “Eventually, theological debate was eclipsed by political intrigue.”[33]

Arianism began as a local conflict in Alexandria, Egypt. The Bishop of Alexandria, Alexander, was in vehement disagreement with Arias, who was one of the most famous presbyters of the city. Alexander eventually condemned Arias and removed him from all official positions in Alexandrian church. Arias, refusing to meekly fade from the scene, appealed to the common people of Alexandria and other Bishops from throughout the East for support. Arias was quite successful; people marched in the streets chanting Arian dogma and various Bishops wrote letters in support. The Eastern church was in turmoil.

Constantine, who had recently established Christianity as the state religion, resolved that he must act. He decided to call a council of Bishops from the entire empire to settle this matter, among others. Arias, not being a Bishop himself, was forbidden to attend. He counted on Eusebius of Nocomedia to present his views. Eusebius (not to be confused with the historian) resolved to simply explain the matter, certain that all opposition would fade away in light of the remorseless logic of Arianism. Eusebius’ oration did not go well.

The assertion that the Word or Son was no more than a creature, no matter how high a creature, provoked angry reactions from many of the bishops: ‘You lie!’ ‘Blasphemy!’ ‘Heresy!’ Eusebius was shouted down, and we are told his speech was snatched from his hand, torn to shreds, and trampled underfoot.[34]

The result of this controversy, the Nicene Creed, is emphatically anti-Arian and takes great pains to emphasize the deity of Christ;[35]

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead.

In the Nicene Creed the early church provided a clear and unambiguous affirmation of the full deity of all three persons of the Godhead, while at the same time maintaining their distinct roles in the economic Trinity.

The doctrine received further refinement at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. where the common phrase “three in one” was coined;[36] the very essence of the orthodox concept of the triunity of God. He is not triple, but three in one.

CHAPTER 3

CURRENT ISSUES

There is nothing novel in modern developments of the Trinity; “there is nothing new under the sun,” (Ecc 1:9). Contemporary debate on the Triunity of God reflects either ontological unity or economic diversity; characterized by the schools of Barth and Moltmann.[37] The difficulty stems from the inherent mystery of the Godhead itself and the delicate balance with maintaining both unity and diversity within one divine essence.

Favoring Unity

Barth has been dogged with a reputation for modalism by emphasizing the subjectivity of God in self-revelation to such an extent that he undermines the distinctiveness of the persons of the Godhead. He referred to modes of being rather than persons, even going so far as to refer to the Trinity as a “threefold way of being.”[38] Barth explained, “the threefold yet single lordship of God as Father, Son and Spirit, is the root of the doctrine of the Trinity.”[39] This “threefold” concept of God has led some to charge Barth with creating a whole new form of modalism outright.[40]

It is difficult to disagree with this assessment; Barth denies both a plurality of Gods and a plurality of individuals within the Godhead:

“The name of the Father, Son and Spirit means that God is the one God in threefold repetition . . . The truth that we are emphasizing is that of the numerical unity of essence of the ‘persons.’”[41]

Van Til concluded that, to Barth, “the orthodox doctrine of three persons in the ontological trinity would . . . lead to tri-theism.”[42]

Barth casts a large shadow over mainline Protestantism and his views have a wide influence. Barth’s error is in trying to harmonize the Godhead in favor of unity; in so doing he de-emphasizes the distinct persons within the Godhead. The old phrase coined by Tertullian so long ago, “one essence in three persons,” is Scripturally sound though apparently contradictory. It is a doctrine ultimately mysterious to fallen men in a world influenced by Satan (Eph 2:2). Barth is incorrect to harmonize beyond the evidence of God’s special revelation; “the secret things belong to the LORD our God,” (Deut 29:29a). Gregory of Nazianzus, writing in the middle of the 4th century, declared God was “one in diversity, diverse in Unity, wherein is a marvel.”[43]

Favoring Diversity

On the other side of the pendulum, largely in reaction to the perceived modalism of Barth and Rahner, there is a tendency to emphasize the three persons over one essence. This school is largely characterized by the work of Jurgen Moltmann, who advocated a sort of tri-theism which had no place for unity of the Godhead. There is no unity; there is only a community of God, Son and Spirit;

The unity of the divine tri-unity lies in the union of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, not in their numerical unity. It lies in their fellowship, not in the identity of a single subject . . . The fellowship of the disciples with one another has to resemble a union of the Son with the Father. But not only does it have to resemble that Trinitarian union; in addition it has to be a union within this union.[44]

To Moltmann, then, this “unity of persons” which comprises his Trinity replaces the traditional concept of essential unity. He boldly characterized his own challenge to orthodoxy as “trinitarian pantheism” or social trinitarianism. Moltmann saw his conception of a divine community of persons in the Trinity as a model for democratic socialism. [45] He was apparently greatly inspired by a portion from Jesus’ high priestly prayer; “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us,” (Jn 17:21). Moltmann read social implications into the text that are not there. His zest for an ideal social society led him to surrender the entire first half of the Trinitarian formula.

It Hath Been Already of Old Time, Which Was Before Us (Ecc 1:10b)

Neither Barth’s nor Moltmann’s positions are Scripturally tenable. It is striking how often history repeats itself. Once again, the good Gregory of Nazianzus has something important to add to the discussion – from 380 A.D;

But when I say God, I mean Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For Godhead is neither diffused beyond these, so as to bring in a mob of gods; nor yet is it bounded by a smaller compass than these, so as to condemn us for a poverty-stricken conception of Deity; either Judaizing to save the Monarchia, or falling into heathenism by the multitude of our gods.  For the evil on either side is the same, though found in contrary directions.[46]

CHAPTER 4

PERSONAL THEOLOGY

Within the one Being that is God, there exists three eternally co-equal and co-eternal persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

 One Essence

There is one Divine Being in one indivisible essence (Deut 6:4; Jas 2:19).[47] The term “essence” is not a Biblical term, but a secular phrase which attempts to capture the concept. It is not a sacred term, but as John Frame noted, it is doubtful a better term will be found.[48] The term serves only to label the concepts we learn from Scripture. The overarching point is that God is one. He is a single, indivisible Being. We do not worship many Gods, but one single God.

The term triune is more accurate than trinity to capture this truth. Trinitarian means “three-fold” or having three parts. Triunity, however, means “three-in-one.” God is triune and not triple.

Three Persons

In this one Divine Being there are distinct three persons, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. These three persons within the Godhead are independent; “the three persons are so real and distinct from each other that each possesses a hypostatical or Trinitarian consciousness different from that of the others.”[49] Each person is co-eternal, being involved in the very creation of the heavens and the earth (Heb 1:2; Col 1:16; Gen 1:1-2). There is no blurring of consciousness; each person is only conscious of being the person they are in the essence of the Godhead.[50] Jesus, for example, is an independent person in the Godhead seeking only to do the will of the Father (John 6:38).

The phrase “person,” much like “essence” above, inevitably falls short. Everything which exists has being (e.g. a rock), but not everything which exists is personal. A person, like Abraham Lincoln, is a personal being. However, being limited, poor Abe Lincoln cannot distribute his being among two, three or four persons. He is limited to himself. God is unlimited and infinite, and therefore in a way man cannot understand, His being is shared co-equally by three distinct persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Divine Essence is Undivided

The whole undivided essence of God belongs equally to each of the three persons. The divine essence is not divided among the three persons, but complete in each one of the persons. The whole essence of God is in each Trinitarian person; they are co-equal.[51] The three persons of the triune Godhead are one and the same God. There is also no subordination between the Godhead with respect to essence; each person is equal in being, power and glory. Scripture provides no standard numerical order when it mentions the Godhead.

Distinct Roles

God is first, the Son is second and the Spirit is third. The Father is the source, the Son the channel and the Spirit the active agent in the Godhead.[52] The Father sent the Son (1 John 4:10) and the Spirit (John 14:26). The Father is greater than the Son (John 14:28) and the Son also sent the Spirit (John 14:26). Berkhof remarked there is no difference in personal dignity between the three persons of the Godhead, and thus “the only subordination of which we can speak is subordination in respect to order and relationship.”[53]

CHAPTER 5

SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY OF THE DOCTRINE

God is One

Israel worshipped one God only. God Himself made this quite clear in the commandments He gave to Moses; “You shall have no other Gods before me,” (Ex 20:3). God went on to forbid idolatry of all kinds (Ex 20:4), affirming His right for exclusive worship – He is a jealous God.

He demonstrated His unique reality to His people in what He had done, in events such as the global flood (Gen 5:5-8) and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:23-25). The exodus was a very prominent theme in Deuteronomy, as Moses repeatedly reminded Israel of God’s grace and power in rescuing them from their plight (Deut 6:20-25, 10:21-22, 11:2-7). Israel’s obligation to obey God is predicated on their grateful acknowledgement of His grace and power (Lev 19:36). No other “god” could claim such power. Israel was repeatedly reminded of God’s grace throughout Deuteronomy; the fact that they worshipped one God who never changed is the very basis of their hope. This is why the Lord reminded His people, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one,” (Deut 6:4).

Solomon recognized this timeless truth. At the dedication of the temple, after praising God for His unmerited grace and mercy to His people, Solomon prayed Israel would walk with the Lord so “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God; there is no other,” (2 Kgs 8:60).

The Apostle James exhorted Christians to remember that mere belief in the one true God is not enough; “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (Jas 2:19). Paul dismissed other “gods” and declared “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist,” (1 Cor 8:6a). Even more explicit is the declaration from Gen 1:1; “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Bruce Ware remarked, “whatever else Genesis 1 is about, the main thing it teaches is that there is one God.”[54]

 God is Three

Christ is Deity

Early Christians did not consider themselves followers of a new religion. They had been Jews and still were; they simply believed their Messiah had come. How, then, did these Jews move from “oneness” to triunity? The fact they did so is quite clear; many scholars regard Phil 2:5-11 as an early Christian hymn which Paul incorporated into his epistle.[55] Here, Paul taught Christ was “in very nature God” (Phil 2:6, NIV).

The writer to the Hebrews was emphatic in his claims about Christ’s deity. Jesus was the means God the Father used to create all things (Heb 1:2). This sheds new light on the creation account (Gen 1:1); Christ was the active agent carrying out the Father’s plan.

It sheds still more light on who, precisely, spoke to Hagar in the wilderness on the way to Shur (Gen 16:7) and Abraham at the oaks of Mamre (Gen 18:1), for no man can see God the Father and live (Ex 33:20). It was nothing less than pre-incarnate Christ who spoke to Abraham and Hagar.[56]

He is the heir of all things, the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature (Heb 1:2-3). “The Son is such a revelation of the Father that when we see Jesus, we see what God’s real being is.”[57] He upholds the universe by His own power and makes purification for sins, sits at the right hand of the Father and is superior to the angels (Heb 1:3-5). Christ is clearly of equal essence with God the Father, and the early Christians affirmed this fact. Prescient Jews would not have been expecting a earthly Savior; Isaiah spoke of the coming Messiah as “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” (Isa 9:6b). Isaiah’s words are particularly important in light of the God’s own commandments against idolatry (Ex 20:3-4).

Christ’s ministry characterized was characterized by His deity. He taught He was the coming Messiah of whom Isaiah spoke (Lk 4:21). He taught the Kingdom of God was both at hand and fulfilled in Himself (Mk 1:14-15). Christ spoke of God’s angels as being His angels (Mt. 13:41). He claimed to forgive sins (Mk 2:8-10), which the scribes rightly objected was a power ascribed only to God (Mk 2:7). Christ taught He would sit on His glorious throne and judge the world in the last days (Mt 25:31).

His own claim to deity is the reason Christ was arrested. The high priest charges Jesus to state the matter plainly under oath before God (Mt 26:63b).[58] Jesus went on to claim his accusers would see Him ruling and reigning as the Messiah. He intentionally invoked Ps 110:1 and Dan 7:13, the two greatest Kingdom prophesies of the OT. McClain wrote, “The high priest, better schooled than some theologians, understood His regal claim, rent his clothing judicially, and called upon his fellow judges to pronounce Him ‘guilty of death’ ” (Mt 26:66).[59] His own disciples even recognized Him as God (Jn 20:28) and Christ did not correct their assumptions. Christ is clearly God and the early Christians saw Him as such.

The Holy Spirit is Deity

The Holy Spirit is often referred to interchangeably with God. Peter declared that Ananias and Sapphira had lied to the Holy Spirit by keeping back proceeds from land they sold and lying about it (Acts 5:3). Peter went on and declared that by doing so they had lied directly to God (Acts 5:4). The Holy Spirit is God, a co-equal member of the Trinity.

The Holy Spirit performs the same functions as God. He convicts the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment (Jn 16:8). He is the very agent of regeneration (Jn 3:5-8) which brings elect sinners into the Kingdom of God. Nobody indwelt with the Holy Spirit can curse Jesus and nobody can claim “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3). He bestows natural talents and abilities upon God’s people (1 Cor 12:4-11); “all these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills,” (1 Cor 12:11). Christians themselves are a temple of God because the Spirit of God dwells in them (1 Cor 3:16-17).

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is equated with blasphemy of God; “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin,” (Mk 3:28-29). Blasphemy in the OT was specifically against God – to speak contemptuously of the deity. This unpardonable sin (Mk 3:22, 28-29) was nothing less than “the deliberate and perverse repudiation of God’s saving work,” which explains Christ’s strong reaction to this grave sin.[60]

He is likewise an agent of creation, in conjunction with God the Son and therefore cannot be a creature (Gen 1:2); “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” The Spirit is eternal (Heb 9:14) and is the helper for believers after Jesus’ ascension (Jn 14:16-17; 16:6-7). It is the Spirit who sanctifies believers (1 Pet 1:2).

Three Are One

All three members of the Godhead, while they are each distinct persons, are also one divine essence who work together towards a common goal. As a basic generalization, Frame observed that the Father plans, the Son executes and the Spirit applies.[61] They are united in their mission because they are one divine essence. There is a mutual glorification among the Godhead which testifies of the deity of each person.

The Father glorifies the Son (Jn 8:54; 12:23; 17:1), and the Son likewise glorifies the Father (Jn 7:18; 17:4). The Spirit also glorifies the Son (Jn 16:14) who glorifies the Father.[62] This is not merely a partnership, whereby each member of the Godhead can sign official paperwork in the name of the firm; there is one essence existing in three distinct modes. Nobody comes to God the Son unless God the Father first draws Him (Jn 6:44). Christ repeats this point later in the Gospel of John (10:29) and concludes by emphatically stating the oneness of His connection with God the Father; “I and the Father are one,” (Jn 10:30).

Jesus claimed that anyone who had seen Him had seen the Father (Jn 14:9-11). This explains how Genesis can accurately relate “God” created the heavens and the earth, while Paul later clarified that Christ was the very agent of that creation (Heb 1:2; Col 1:16). The baptismal formulas throughout Scripture speak of all three members of the Godhead (Mt 28:19; 2 Cor 13:14; 1 Pet 1:2). The “name” of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19) is singular, although three persons are included. There is also no hint of inferiority or subordination in either formula, precisely because they are each fully deity and united in one purpose. God is also referred to in plural form in several instances (Gen 1:26; 11:7; Isa 6:8). Referring to the Genesis account, (“Let us make man in our image”), Matthews writes, “the plural indicates an intra-divine conversation, a plurality in the Godhead, between God and His Spirit.’[63]

Perhaps the clearest exposition of the unity or oneness of the Godhead is in Eph 4:4-6;

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Eph 4:4. Paul is exhorting the church at Ephesus to remain united in Christ (Eph 4:3). In doing so, he calls their attention to the divine unity of the Godhead. Just as they must be one body of united believers (Eph 2:16), there is one Holy Spirit who indwells them all (Eph 2:22), who called them to the one hope.

Eph 4:5. There is one Lord, Jesus Christ, who is the Head of the church (Eph 1:22-23). There is one faith which the church proclaims – Christ Jesus. There is also one baptism whereby believers signify their spiritual unity with Him (Gal 3:27).

Eph 4:6. There is one God and one Father of all believers who comprise the one church. He is sovereign over all, lives through them all and in them all.

The Athanasian Creed captures the concept, “We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons, nor separating the substance.”[64]

SUMMARY

A proper understanding of the Trinity is essential for the Christian faith; for worship, revelation, redemption, sanctification. The Triune Godhead is at the very heart of Christian identity – it defines what it means to be a Christian. The orthodox doctrine of “one being in three persons” developed over time as the church fathers struggled to maintain Scriptural teachings in the midst of various heresies. Modern theological issues revolving around the Triune Godhead, for the most part, recycle old heresies and revisit old fields of battle from wars which have already been fought.

The doctrine advanced by this paper, that within the one Being that is God, there exists three eternally co-equal and co-eternal persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, has been established. It is supported by church history and has been demonstrated by a thematic biblical theology of Scripture. A right view of the Triune God will revolutionize the Christian life and allow His children to give Him all the more glory for His grace towards fallen sinners.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Athanasius, Discourse Against the Arians. The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 4. Christian Classics Etheral Library, PDF edition, n.d. 4:433-447.

Brannan, Rick, ed. Historic Creeds and Confessions. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Etheral Library, n.d.

Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology, combined ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996

Carson, D.A. “Matthew,” vol. 8. The Expositors Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.

Erickson, Millard J. Making Sense of the Trinity: Three Crucial Questions. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000.

Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 1. Christian Classics Etheral Library, PDF edition, n.d. 1:vii-404.

Frame, John M. The Doctrine of God. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002.

Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity, combined ed. Peabody: Prince Press, 2007.

Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations. The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 7. Christian Classics Etheral Library, PDF edition, n.d. 7:185-434.

Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, PDF edition, n.d. 191-270.

Keith, Graham. “Our Knowledge of God: Insights from the Fourth-Century Trinitarian Controversies.” Reformation and Revival 12:1 (Winter 2003): 81-103.

Kent, Homer A. Jr. “Philippians,” vol. 11. The Expositors Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Klooster, Fred H. “Barth and the Future of Evangelical Theology.” Westminster Theological Journal 47:2 (Fall 1985): 301-317.

Matthews, Kenneth A. “Genesis 11:27-50:26,” vol. 1b. The New American Commentary. Nashville: B&H, 2005.

McClain, Alva J. The Greatness of the Kingdom. Winona Lake: BMH, 1959.

McCune, Rolland. A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, vol. 1. Detroit: DBTS, 2009.

Morris, Leon. “Hebrews,” vol. 12. The Expositors Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Ross, Allen P. “Genesis,” vol. 1. The Bible Knowledge Commentary. Wheaton: Victor, 1985.

Rooker, M.F. “Blasphemy.” Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander & David W. Baker. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2003.

Strong, Augustus H. Systematic Theology. Old Tappan: Revell, 1979.

Tertullian, Apology. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, PDF edition, n.d. 17-60.

Tertullian, Against Praxeas. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, PDF edition, n.d. 597-632.

Theissen, Henry. Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949.

Toussaint, Stanley. Behold the King. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1980.

Van Til, Cornelius. “Has Karl Barth Become Orthodox?” Westminster Theological Journal 16:2 (May 1954): 135-181.

Ware, Bruce A. Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles and Relevance. Wheaton: Crossway, 2005.


[1] Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles and Relevance (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 13.

[2] Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1979), 350.

[3] Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 15-16.

[4] Strong, Systematic, 349.

[5] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 358-360. Erickson omits a discussion of Arianism.

[6] Ibid, 353.

[7] Ibid, 358.

[8] Justin Myrtyr, Dialogue with Trypho 61, ANF 1:607

[9] Tertullian, Apology 21, ANF 3:34. Emphasis mine.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Tertullian, Against Praxeas 2, ANF 3:59. Emphasis mine.

[12] Erickson, Theology, 358.

[13] Millard J. Erickson, Making Sense of the Trinity: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2000), 48.

[14] Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 5.28, NPNF2 1:597

[15] Erickson, Making Sense, 48.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 7.28.2, NPNF2 1:807.

[18] Erickson, Theology, 359.

[19] Ibid, 360.

[20] Ibid, 360.

[21] Tertullian, Against Praxeas 2, ANF 3:598.

[22] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[23] Tertullian, Against Praxeas 10, ANF 3:604

[24] Ibid.

[25] Baptism (Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22; Jn 1:29-34), Christ speaks explicitly to the Father (Jn 17) and of the Spirit (Jn 16:5-11).

[26] Athanasius, Discourse Against the Arians 1.1.1., NPNF2, 4:306.

[27] Athanasius, Discourse Against the Arians 1.2.5, NPNF2, 4:309.

[28] Athanasius, Discourse Against the Arians 1.3.10., NPNF2, 4:312.

[29] Jn 14:28; Mk 10:18 and Lk 18:19; Mk 13:32; Lk 2:52

[30] Erickson, Making Sense, 51.

[31] Graham Keith, “Our Knowledge of God: Insights from the Fourth-Century Trinitarian Controversies,” Reformation and Revival 12:1 (Winter 2003), 86.

[32] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, combined ed. (Peabody, MS: Prince Press, 2007), 161.

[33] Ibid, 159.

[34] Ibid, 164.

[35] Rick Brannan, ed., Historic Creeds and Confessions (Grand Rapids, MI: CCEL, n.d.).

[36] Erickson, Theology, 361.

[37] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 294.

[38] Ibid, 295.

[39] Quoted from Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 1, pt.1, 334 in Horton, Christian Faith, 295.

[40] Fred H. Klooster, “Barth and the Future of Evangelical Theology,” Westminster Theological Journal 47:2 (Fall 1985), 308.

[41] Horton, Christian Faith, 295.

[42] Cornelius Van Til, “Has Karl Barth Become Orthodox?,” Westminster Theological Journal 16:2 (May 1954), 162.

[43] Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations 28:1, NPNF2, 7:288.

[44] Horton, Christian Faith, 299.

[45] Ibid, 296.

[46] Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations 38:8, NPNF2, 7:347.

[47] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, combined ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 89.

[48] John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 697.

[49] Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, vol.1 (Detroit, MIL: DBTS, 2009), 287.

[50] Ibid.

[51] McCune, Systematic, 275.

[52] McCune, Systematic, 289.

[53] Berkhof, Systematic, 88.

[54] Ware, Father, 25.

[55] Homer A. Kent, Jr. “Philippians,” vol. 11, The Expositors Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 122.

[56] Allen P. Ross, “Genesis,” vol. 1, The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985), 56. See also Kenneth A. Matthews, “Genesis 11:27-50:26,” vol. 1b, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2005), 189.

[57] Leon Morris, “Hebrews,” vol. 12, The Expositors Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 14.

[58] The adjuration implies being “under oath by the living God.” See D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” vol. 8, The Expositors Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 554. See also Stanley Toussaint, Behold the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1980), 307.

[59] Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom (Winona Lake, IN: BMH, 1959), 380.

[60] M. F. Rooker, “Blasphemy,” Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander & David W. Baker (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), 80-83.

[61] Frame, Doctrine, 694.

[62] Frame, Doctrine, 695.

[63] Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26, 163.

[64] Henry Theissen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), 135.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s