God in Three Persons: The Trinity

November 20, 2023

By Peter Amsterdam

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For the uninitiated, the impression could be that Christianity believes in three Gods—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But that’s not the case. Christians believe that there is only one God. The doctrine that explains the concept of how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God is called the doctrine of the Trinity.

This doctrine explains that God has always existed as three persons in one being. This is very different from humans, as we exist as one person in one being—we are uni-personal. God exists as a tri-personal being—three persons, each distinct from the other, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—and yet one being. While God is tri-personal, each of the persons is fully God, having all of the attributes and the complete essence of God.

Our experience as human beings is that where you have a person, you also have a distinct individual essence. Every person we know is a distinct and separate entity, in whom human nature is individualized. But in God there aren’t three individuals alongside of, and separate from, one another. Rather, there is one divine being, one essence, with three personal self-distinctions.

The concept of three persons in one God was not something that was explicitly expressed in the Old Testament, though there are Old Testament verses which infer that there is more than one person in God. The understanding of the three persons in one God became clearer in the New Testament because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the believers. The followers of Jesus came to understand that Jesus was God, but was distinct from the Father, and that the Holy Spirit was also God, but was distinct from the Father and the Son. So it was in New Testament times that the truth of the Trinity unfolded and was revealed.

While the Old Testament does not reveal that God is a triune being, some Old Testament passages do speak in a manner that suggests that God is more than one person: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (Genesis 1:26). “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil’” (Genesis 3:22). (See also Genesis 11:7; Isaiah 6:8.)

In these next verses, also from the Old Testament, the speaker is either God the Father or God the Son, and they make reference to each other or to the Spirit, again inferring different persons in the Godhead. “Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name, and what is His Son’s name? Surely you know!” (Proverbs 30:4). “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor” (Isaiah 61:1).

One of the great scriptures from the Old Testament which is fundamental to Judaism is “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4)Judaism is a monotheistic religion which believes there is only one God. This belief was by and large unique to Israel in the time of the Old Testament, as virtually all cultures in the region were polytheistic, including all of Israel’s neighbors throughout history until the time of Christ.

Christianity is monotheistic as well. Christians believe there is only one God, and affirm this same Bible verse, “the Lord our God is one Lord.” However, unlike Judaism, Christians believe in the tri-personal God, three persons in one Being.

Developing the doctrine

Developing and articulating the understanding of this doctrine was done progressively in early church history. Although the word Trinity doesn’t appear within the biblical text, Scripture reveals the doctrine, and the word Trinity conveys the concept.

Augustine (AD 354–430), one of the greatest figures of Christianity in the western part of the Roman Empire and considered the most important Christian writer next to the Apostle Paul, summarized the fundamental logic of the Trinity in seven short statements. These statements are:

  1. The Father is God.
  2. The Son is God.
  3. The Holy Spirit is God.
  4. The Father is not the Son.
  5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
  6. The Holy Spirit is not the Father.
  7. There is only one God.

The first three statements express that each member of the Trinity is God. The second three statements assert that each member of the Trinity is distinct one from another. The last statement declares that there is only one God.

While all of this may be difficult to fully understand, if we build from Augustine’s foundational seven statements, it’s plain to see that the Bible lays out the case for the Trinity—three distinct persons as one God.

The Father is God. The following verses express that the Father is God: “Thou, O Lord, art our Father, our Redeemer; Thy name is from everlasting” (Isaiah 63:16). “After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name” (Matthew 6:9). “He received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to Him from the excellent glory, This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (2 Peter 1:17).

John chapter 17 is a prayer that Jesus prays to the Father, showing that He considered the Father as God.

The Son is God.The following verses express that Jesus is God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1–3). “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known(John 1:18).

The Holy Spirit is God. Psalm 139 shows that the Holy Spirit is omnipresent, something that only God is. “Where shall I go from Your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there!” (Psalm 139:7–8).

1 Corinthians 2 shows the Holy Spirit as omniscient, knowing everything, one of the attributes of God alone. “These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10–11).

This next verse shows that the Holy Spirit was present from before the creation of the world and played a role in some manner: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2).

The following verse shows the Holy Spirit working along with Jesus in our lives as Christians. “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).

Three distinct Persons

In 2 Corinthians, Paul lists the three persons of the Trinity in a manner that shows they are distinct from one another: “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).

Jesus, just before ascending into heaven, commands the disciples to baptize in the name of each person of the Trinity, thus showing He saw them all as equal, all as God. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19.)

The way the New Testament authors refer to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit shows their distinctness—that they are different from one another and that they interact in ways that show they are not the same person. For example, Jesus asks the Father to send the Spirit, which shows three different Persons interacting together: “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16–17)(See also Matthew 11:27; Matthew 3:16–17.) These verses help to show that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct one from another.

Both the Old and New Testaments, as well as Jesus Himself, affirm that there is only one God (Mark 12:28–29; Isaiah 45:5). Augustine’s statements, which are based on Scripture, make it clear that God is three persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—that they are distinct from each other, and that there is only one God.

In truth, the concept of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being one God is impossible for us as humans to completely understand. We have nothing like it in our world. It’s completely beyond our experience. That might be disconcerting, but it’s also consistent with our belief that an all-powerful, all-knowing creator God exists. As He reveals Himself to us, it stands to reason that understanding some aspects of Him might be beyond our human experience and understanding. So if you feel you can’t fully understand it, don’t worry about it. The important things are to know that there is one God, that there are three Persons in God, that God loves you and Jesus died for your salvation, and that the Holy Spirit is with you as a helper and counselor.

The apostles and disciples—who were all Jewish and who had all their lives believed there was only one God, and for whom believing otherwise was blasphemy—came to understand, especially after His resurrection, that Jesus, this man they knew and lived with, was God. They knew He wasn’t God the Father, but that He was God. Once Jesus had ascended into heaven and the promised Holy Spirit powerfully came into their lives at Pentecost, these same men came to understand the Holy Spirit as God, yet they knew that the Spirit was neither the Father nor the Son.

The writers of the New Testament understood, accepted, and wrote in terms of one God, and of the distinct persons of the Godhead. The early church believed it, and Christians today believe it. It’s at the heart of our faith.

Originally published May 2011. Adapted and republished November 2023. Read by Jon Marc.

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