Many claim it is impossible to understand the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. A typical challenge found in one anti-Trinitarian book (1) goes as follows:
“God is one and God is three, and there is nothing like it in all creation. We cannot understand it but only accept it.”
Some have heard such an assertion go unchallenged often enough they assume the point must be conceded. “After all, how can three be one?” Thus we are presented a “challenge to logic” for which they demand a response.
Well first we acknowledge that no one can claim they comprehend the full nature of God, but because of God’s self‐revelation we may apprehend his essential nature. In fact, only when we discern that nature may we grow to be like him. In scripture we are commanded to, “Grow in the grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18, ESV). So just as a newborn baby does not fully comprehend the love of his parents, he may genuinely apprehend that love and rest in peace. Since God is a good parent, he knows how to communicate his love.
Second, we should expect to grasp the essential nature of the Trinity because from the beginning God has revealed that the universe was created as a trinity of trinities! Consider the very first verse of the Bible:
“In the beginning [time] God created the heavens [space] and the earth [matter]” (Genesis 1:1, ESV).
These three essential attributes of the one universe are likewise triune (2).
- Time: past, present, and future—one time.
- Space: height, width, and depth—one space.
- Matter: gas, liquid, and solid—one matter.
So for those who claim they can’t imagine how there can be three in one, we should point out that it is actually impossible to imagine anything that is not three in one—from the beginning. And the assertion that we “cannot understand it but only accept it” does not recognize the role of revelation in Biblical faith. We may genuinely posses truth because:
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29, ESV)
Now as an engineer, if I were to ask someone to calculate the volume of a cube that was for example, 1-foot, by 1-foot, by 1-foot, and they answered “3-feet,” I would realize we had a conceptual problem. Likewise, when people ask, “How can three be one?” I know it’s time for clarification.
We start by explaining that in the Trinity there are not three individuals but only three personal self-distinctions within the one divine essence. And according to the Bible a “person” is a self aware subject who relates to the other two as “another” (John 5:32,37; 14:16-17,26). Therefore the Trinity does not teach that one god is three gods, nor does it teach that one person is three persons. Instead the doctrine of the Trinity can be simply stated as follows:
There is but one God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is each God; and the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit is each a distinct person.
Now the analogy between the Triune nature of God and the triune nature of the created universe is very instructive and really quite strong. However the nature of God and that of his creation can never be identical. In fact it would be idolatrous to say anything in the creation is essentially the same as God (Isaiah 40:18). By definition, the creation reflects the nature of its Creator with quantitative and qualitative limitations (3).
As a matter of practical application, the Trinity is essential to our understanding of the love of God. You see, how would it be possible to say, “God is love” (1 John 4:8), if before the creation of the universe no expression of love was even possible. Jesus clearly connected the eternal love between the persons of the Trinity to the love God has for us in heaven.
“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” John 17:24, ESV. (4)
In conclusion, God relates to believers in Trinity:
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” 2 Corinthians 13:14, ESV
- For a more detailed examination of the Biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity and its implications see the following book review, Searching for Answers: When God Reveals his Image, by Cornell Thomas: http://www.thingsrevealed.net/Searching_For_Answers_Cornell-Thomas.pdf
- Albert Einstein showed that the universe is inseparably comprised of time, space, and matter. Three-in-one.
- Some are understandingly concerned that all such analogies for the Trinity break down at some point. For example, matter normally exists in one of three states; solid, liquid, or gas, but not simultaneously. This, they claim, gives credence to the false doctrine of “modalism.” However water, one of the most common molecules on earth, when cooled to 0°C (the so-called triple-point) actually does exist in all three states simultaneously–three-in-one. Again, by definition, all analogies between the creation and the Creator are limited.
- See also Ephesians 1:3-6; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2.
- In the Bible the doctrine of the Trinity is not a mere “formula.” It is a description of the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in the nature of God. You will not always see a fixed formulaic pattern of words: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are some times given in different order (Matthew 28:19 versus 2 Corinthians 13:14), and other names God (father implied), Christ (Son, Word, Jesus), and Holy Spirit (Spirit). The key to understanding the Trinity is the consistent unity, relationship, and love.
- Scripture quotations from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV), 2001, by Crossway Bibles, Good News Publishers.