Do You Really Understand the Trinity?
by Ed Vasicek
Earlier today I engaged in an hour plus conversation with a young man about the doctrine of the Trinity. This fellow was a Modal Monarchian, which means he acknowledges that Christ is God (good), but denies that God is three Persons (bad). I found him to be an intelligent man who was well schooled in Scripture. I can even say that he earned my respect. I hope he calls back.
We volleyed Scriptures back and forth. It was refreshing to debate someone who knew the Word, was fairly reasonable, and quite sincere. Although we could not agree upon the Trinity, we could agree on this conclusion: most Christians (including most clergy) do not understand the Trinity nor do they teach the doctrine correctly.
Sure, in a sense none of us understands the Trinity. This should come as no surprise. God is infinitely greater and so much more complex than we. Heresy looms when we try to put God in a box, when we leave no room for the unknowable. Deuteronomy 29:29 reads, "The secret things belong to the Lour God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this Law." When I talk about understanding the nature of God, I do not mean that we can completely grasp who God is and what He is like. But we can grasp that which God has revealed. And it is in this regard that I ask the question, "Do you REALLY understand the Trinity?" The material below is crucial, so if you scratch your head at the word "Trinity," please study the following material until it becomes comfortable.
Tertullian coined the term "Trinity" in the third century. The term signifies that God is a Unity, He is One, yet He is Three Persons (Tri-unity). Like the word "Bible," the term is extra-biblical. Rather than say "the 39 books comprising the Hebrew Scriptures and the 27 books compromising the Christian Scriptures" we simply say "Bible." Efficient. So it is that rather than saying, "We believe in one God who is manifest in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and though these Persons are distinct they are of the same essence and attributes," we save that verbiage by saying "Trinity."
Moslems, Jews, and various Christian sects often claim that Trinitarians (people who believe God is a Trinity) actually believe in three gods. Based upon some ways I have seen the Trinity illustrated, I can understand why they think such things. Many people who claim to believe in the Trinity are actually Modal Monarchians in practice. They believe that there is one God who wears three masks, so that when Jesus was praying to the Father He was actually praying to Himself. I have found this erroneous view to be the most commonly held by laymen who claim to believe in the Trinity.
How much theology (the study of God) should the average Christian know? That is a matter of debate. But it is not too much to ask all Christians to grasp the boundaries of the Trinity (though we cannot really understand the mystery of it all) and the person and work of Christ. The work of Christ is for another discussion, but His Person is best discussed while addressing the Trinity. So here goes the whole ball of wax.
God is a spiritual being who has always existed. He had no beginning. God began this sequence of events called "time." He has always been three Persons, meaning He has always had three personalities. All three Persons are uncreated. These Persons seek to glorify one another (which is why it is love, not vanity, for God to seek glory).
The only illustration I know of that does justice to the Trinity is not a pleasant one, but here goes. I have heard tell of individuals who have more than one personality. This condition is considered a disorder in human beings, but it serves as an illustration: ONE human possessing several personalities. Sorry, folks, but that's the best I can do. And that is the point: we cannot adequately illustrate the Trinity because no one is like God. You see, when you have the Father, you do not have one-third of God. You have God. When you have the Son or the Holy Spirit, you have all of God, not one-third of Him. Yet the Father is neither the Son nor the Holy Spirit, yet they are one (unity). It makes perfect sense but our limited minds cannot comprehend it because we think in terms of comparison, and nothing compares to God. A four-year-old child does not understand how a television works, but he accepts the reality that it does. In these matters, that is our lot.
At a point in time, God the Son became a man. His human nature began in Mary's womb (whom Scripture rightly calls the "mother of Jesus" but NOT the "mother of God"). When I say Jesus, I am talking about more than the Son of God but the Son of God PLUS the human nature of Jesus. It is therefore more theologically correct to say, "God the Son has always existed" but inaccurate to say, "Jesus Christ has always existed" since His humanity had a beginning. Only Christ's divine nature has existed from eternity.
When we say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are "Persons" or "Personalities" that does NOT mean they are human beings or people. Persons are defined as beings possessing intellect, emotion, will, and a level of creativity. Angels are persons, demons are persons, human beings are persons, and God is three Persons.
When you look at all the pieces in the puzzlethe many Scriptures discussing Godit is only the Doctrine of the Trinity that harmonizes them all. When you examine ALL the verses that address the Person of Jesus Christ, the Scriptural criteria demand a Jesus with two natures: human and divine. These doctrines are correct and true not because we dogmatically choose to embrace them, but because they alone fit all the criteria of the Word of God.
So, do you understand the Trinity and the dual nature Christ very well? Try this True and False quiz!
Here are the answers:
How did you do? If the answer is "Not so hot," restudy the above. This theology is not just for the bookwormsevery Christian needs to grasp these truths. If you did not do so well, take heartmost Christians are in your campbut take the challenge and get this down. If you have questions or are confused, I'd be happy to chat with you. I care about our flock and am burdened that all of us understand the basics!
Reprinted from the March 2002 Body Builder, a publication of Highland Park Church.
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Kokomo, Indiana, USA