The Trinity is unique to Christianity
This post comes from Dr Tom Murphy who lives in Sydney, Australia.
What feature most differentiates Christianity from any other religion? What makes it special? Is it the crucifixion? The resurrection? The belief that Jesus was divine? Or something else?
It would seem that our understanding of exactly who and what God is like is what makes all the difference. And God is a Trinity. Being Christian means having a personal relationship with Jesus. In a personal relationship, we learn who the other person is and what they are like.
Everything else we believe as Christians becomes more amazing when we understand who and what God is like – and God is a Trinity. In fact, many of God’s attributes would actually be unsavory, or terrifying, if God was not a Trinity. The Trinity shapes every aspect of Christian belief including creation, God’s relationship to humanity, salvation, heaven, and everything else we believe about God’s character – His love, justice, wrath and holiness. It has implications for how we understand, appreciate and approach fellowship in the church, marriage, parenting, the problem of pain and suffering in the world and so much more. But here we will focus on just a few key issues central to Christianity
Also, the human heart is an idol factory. An idol is a false image, concept or ideal that usurps the love and worship we owe the one true God. Anything that is not the real true God is a fabrication. So, we need to ask who and what is this one true God really like?
Now we have a problem: the Trinity is often viewed as a confusing oddity, instead of the unique foundation that makes everything about Christianity more wonderful.
Think of the desperate-sounding analogies often used: some explain the Trinity “as a bit like an egg, where there is the shell, the yolk and the white, and yet it is all one egg!” Another says “the Trinity is like a shamrock leaf: that’s one leaf, but it’s got three bits sticking out. Just like the Father, Son and Spirit.” We compare The Trinity to three states of water. I have even heard of three-headed giants and the three headed dog Cerberus used as illustrations. Problematically, some of these more or less explicitly teach heresy; an incorrect understanding of God.
Notwithstanding this, the Trinity begins to sound like a bizarre add-on. It seems almost irrelevant next to the more practical or straight forward parts of Christianity. How could the egg-likeness, or leafiness or wetness or three-headedness of God ever inspire our awe, love and adoration? Or mean much at all?
Sometimes we just say what the Trinity is not. “The Father is not the Son,” “the Spirit is not the Father,” “there are not three gods” and so on. In the end, the illustrations and lists of “nots” don’t really tell us anything about who God is – we miss seeing it as an amazing delight; and that’s a shame when the Trinity is central to who God is.
Alternatively, we may whisper “God is a mystery”, “We’re simply not meant to know such things”. This has a ring of reverence, but is not particularly accurate. The Bible explains what a mystery really is. A mystery is simply something we didn’t know before, but now it’s been revealed. For example, in Ephesians 3, Paul writes of the “mystery” concerning how the Gentiles are now included in salvation and the promise to Abraham. There’s nothing really “mysterious” about it. So it is with God. God is not a mystery in the “who can know, why bother?” sense. At one time we didn’t know or understand His character and would never have worked it out by ourselves. But this Triune God revealed it to us.
A theological definition
Summarizing the teaching of Scripture, we may define the doctrine of the Trinity as follows: There is just one God that eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person is completely and fully God; each person has the whole fullness of God’s being in Himself. The Son is not partly God or just one-third of God, He is wholly and fully God, with all of the attributes of God. The same is true of the Father and the Holy Spirit. No person existed before the others or could be separated from them. There is no inferiority of being or differing “degree of Godness” between them.
So, what are the differences between the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit? The distinction between the persons is a difference in “relationships”, not a difference in “being” or attributes.
They relate to each other as “I” (a first person) and “you” (a second person) and “He” (a third person). The unique quality of the Father is the way He relates as Father to the Son and Holy Spirit. The unique quality of the Son is the way He relates as Son. These persons are real, and not just different ways of looking at the one being of God. We cannot believe in the Father without believing in the Son and the Spirit. We cannot cleave to the Son without cleaving to the Spirit and the Father. We cannot receive the Spirit without also receiving the Father and the Son. We can pray to the Father or the Son or the Spirit. We can praise them. We can grieve them. And prayer is only possible because God is triune (Appendix B).
“Perichoresis” is the theological word describing how the life of each person flows through the others, so they all each infuse each other and has direct access to the consciousness of the others. It describes the three persons of the Trinity existing only in a mutual reciprocal relatedness to each other. “God is not God apart from the way in which Father, Son, and Spirit eternally give to and receive from each other what they essentially are” (Gunton, 1999). The oneness of God is not a oneness of three isolated persons, but the oneness of three persons who permeate and pervade each other’s being completely.
The “logical absurdity” of the Trinity
It is often objected that the Trinity is logically absurd – irrational mathematic non-sense.
1 + 1 + 1 = 1 is clearly ridiculous. But this misses the essence of the Trinity. We do not believe in a plurality of gods that nonsensically add up to one. We affirm that there is just one, only one, God. But we maintain that within this single divine entity that is God, there subsists three distinct persons – as it has been put when describing the being of God “there is one what, and three whos”. This is not 1 + 1 + 1 = 1.
When our Islamic friends cry “do not ascribe partners to Allah” (Surah 2:21-22 and 3:64, 4:48 etc.), or don’t come up with additional gods, we whole heartedly agree. We are not adding additional gods to a divine a pantheon but simply expressing the full richness the one true God, who has no partners and will not give His glory to another (Dt. 6:4-9; Isa. 42:8; Mt. 16:27; Jn. 17:1-5). This full richness of God’s character comprises Father, Son and Spirit together – and this truth makes everything more wonderful. And so now we ask, how does the Trinity change everything?
What was God doing before the creation of the world?
What was God doing before creation? Consider a solitary, monadic, non-triune god. For eternity this solitary god will have had nobody and nothing to love but himself. And when I say love, I mean in the giving, other-focused, self-less kind. By his very nature this lonely god must be fundamentally inward-looking. Private self-gratification seems to be central to him and could be his only motivation to create. But then the existence of a universe beside him may become an irritating distraction for the god whose greatest pleasure is looking in a mirror. We could say that this god’s identity is to be the sovereign creator. But if this is god’s identity is to be the creator, he needs a creation to rule in order to be who he is. For all his cosmic power, this god turns out to be pitifully weak: he depends on us to make him something better.
So, what was God doing before creation? Jesus tells us explicitly in John 17:24. “Father, you loved me before the creation of the world”. Before He ever created or ruled the world, this God was a Father loving His Son. He must be relational and life-giving. He was a loving Father, a loving Son, and a loving Spirit.
Now consider the following passages of scripture where we read that all of creation, everything in heaven and on earth, was made through and for Jesus, the Son (that nothing was made apart from Him and in Him was life):
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1: 15-17).
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of men” (Jn. 1:1-4).
God’s act of creation was an overflow of His love for the Son, Jesus Christ. It was done for Him and through Him. The fact that Jesus is “the Son” really says it all. Being a Son means He has a Father. The God He reveals is, first and foremost, a Father. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” He says. “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). That is who God has revealed Himself to be: not first and foremost Creator, but Father.
How does God relate to His creation?
Again, consider that non-triune god existing alone and in isolation for eternity. Intimately relating to his creation is not something that naturally flows from such a god’s character. He is aloof above his creation. The natural relationship between such a god and creation would be very asymmetric. He is either merely the transcendent ruler of his new pets in their little terrarium, ensuring they behave as well-trained pups, or he is indifferent. Creation is a nuisance or a rival. It is hard to believe he could truly love and relate to the creatures he has made.
Surveying the singular supreme beings of many other religions, there certainly seems to be a marked awkwardness between them and creation.
- In the ancient Mesopotamian religions, humans were an afterthought to creation. Made only to provide slave labor for the Gods.
- Similarly, The Greco-Roman deities saw humans as servants at best and as playthings or annoyances to destroy at worst.
- In many eastern religions our humanity is actually a debased husk we must rid ourselves of as we aim to ultimately annihilate ourselves and be absorbed into the non-personal divine essence that pervades the universe.
- In other faiths, God is revered as the supreme ruler and creator, but we do not approach him. We simply obey his commands delivered by intermediaries in the hope earning our reward.
Now, suppose we had a two-person god, this god might be loving, but in an excluding, ungenerous way. Two people can be so mutually infatuated that everything else is ignored. However, when the love between two persons is happy, healthy and secure, they rejoice to share it. This is our God – perfectly loving, from all eternity the Father and the Son have delighted to share their love and joy with and through the Spirit. Being triune, our God is a sharing God, who loves to include. Loving others is not a strange or novel thing for this God at all; it is at the root of who He is. For a Triune God (and only a Triune God) relational love toward His creation is entirely unsurprising. It is only this kind of God who can honestly declare “let us make man in our own image” and then invite others to join it the reciprocal love already enjoyed within his being.
What does it mean to sin against God?
The answer to that question really depends on what was originally “right.” And what is “right” depends on what sort of god you have. Imagine again that single-person god who did not create out of overflowing love, but merely to rule as a supreme dictator. For this god, “right” means nothing more than the behavior he wants. Assuming this God, what went wrong when mankind sinned? They just did what they were told not to. They ate a piece of contraband fruit. But, In the Bible, sin goes far deeper than behavior. Even with all the outward shows of a good and religious life we can be described as no better than whitewashed tombs, clean on the outside but rotten on the inside. But if god is merely a lawmaker, how could we properly be called “white-washed tombs” when we strive to model little rule keepers?
Now answer the question with our triune God in mind. God “created man in His own image” (Gen. 1:27). Specifically, we are created to delight in harmonious relationships, to love God and to love each other. Jesus taught that the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself (Mt. 22:36-39). That is what we are created for. So, what went wrong? It wasn’t that Adam and Eve stopped loving. They were created in the image of an essentially loving God; they could not do that. Instead, their love became inverted and their relationship with God was broken. Paul describes sinners as: “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, . . . lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:2-4).
Lovers we remain, but twisted ones. The first sin was merely the manifestation of this inversion of love – Adam and Eve desired the fruit more than they desired God. And this is just how it is with all sin, it flows from what we wrongly love: “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (Jas. 1:14-15).
What about God’s anger?
Atheist the late Christopher Hitchens clearly viewed God as fundamentally the ruler, characterized by “supervision and invigilation (surveillance)”. “The biggest boy in the school who must have his every way or else lose it in fits of rage”. For a single-person God, this will characterise his anger toward sin. His anger is repellent. Richard Dawkins’ characterisation of such a god is quite accurate: “the most unpleasant character … jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty … megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
But our Triune God changes this picture entirely. God is fundamentally the most kind and loving Father, and exercises His rule as only a loving Father can. Life under His rule is not a dystopian dictatorship, it’s living in the household of a caring father, passionate about the welfare of all His creatures. With this God, anger and wrath is not just one of His changing moods. God’s anger at evil from Genesis 3 onward is a new thing: it is how the God who is love responds to evil. God is angry at evil because He loves. Isaiah 28:21 describes God’s anger as His strange and alien work, but He can’t yawn while His creatures suffer, He hates the thought of anything evil befalling them and relentlessly pursues restored relationships with them.
What does the salvation God offers look like?
Think again of that solitary god who is creator and ruler. What kind of salvation can he offer me (if he’s even prepared to offer such a thing)? If God is just a ruler and I have broken the rules, my relationship with him can be little better than it could with any other dictator, judge or cop: I could hope to evade him, or he could ignore me breaking the rules. But neither case inspires me to love him. I might be grateful if he ignores my offenses, but that is not at all the same as love. We might be able to acknowledge that the rule of some heavenly dictator was just, but we could never really take delight in his regime. Ironically, we could never keep the greatest command: to love the Lord our God.
But we have seen that sin is not simply rule breaking. It’s a torn relationship with the God who is love. And astonishingly, it was our rejection that then drew forth the extreme depths of His love:
“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:8-10).
The ultimate good of the gospel is seeing and savoring the beauty and value of God. Of coming into relationship with Him:
“Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3, NIV).
Through the sending of the Son for our salvation we see more clearly than ever how generous and self-giving the love of the triune God is. Without the cross, we could never have imagined the depth and seriousness of what it means to say that God is love. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us” (1 Jn. 3:16).
“God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.” That is stunning. In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the motivation driving God’s plan for salvation:
“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them” (Jn. 17:25-26).
The Father sent His Son that we might join and enjoy the love of the Son and the Father. The Father sent the Son because the Father so greatly loves the Son. His love for the world is the overflow of His almighty love for His Son, and He desires to share it with all who will believe. Jesus, delighting to do the will of the Father, and sharing His Father’s great love, goes to earth. And it makes the Son unstoppable: He resolutely sets His face to go to Jerusalem where He will be crucified, and lays His life down entirely of His own accord (Jn. 10:18).
The Son gives Himself so that the world may know the Father and the Spirit confirms our adoption and regenerates us to live in communion with the Godhead and fellow believers. Only a triune God can do what is done in the gospel.
We see all three persons of the Godhead working together to complete the divine plan and bring salvation to the world.
- God the Father sends the Son
- The Son ministers in the power of the Spirit
- The Father hands the Son over to the cross
- The Father raises the Son from the dead by the Spirit
- After Jesus’ ascension the Father and the Son send the Spirit to comfort, teach and empower the church
- The Spirit gives glory to the Father and the Son.
The Father chooses, the Son redeems, and the Spirit sanctifies.
The Son, desires to be both the high priest and the sacrifice for sin, offering Himself up to His Father through the Spirit (Heb. 9:14). It means that God makes no third party suffer to achieve atonement. Nobody but God contributes to the work of salvation: The Father, Son and Spirit accomplish it all. The beautiful thing is that in the gospel, God is the giver and gift all at once.
No single person god could ever offer such a salvation even if they wanted to; a God who is not Father, Son and Spirit; could never conceive or deliver such a salvation. If God were not triune, if there was no Son, no lamb of God to die in our place, then we would have to atone for our sin ourselves. We would have to provide, for God could not. And since, by definition, He could not have been eternally loving, would He pay the price of sin and offer forgiveness for free? Most unlikely.
If God was not a Father, He could never give us the right to be His children. If He did not enjoy eternal fellowship with His Son, He would have no fellowship to share. If the Son was a created creature and had not eternally been “in the closest relationship with the Father” (Jn. 1:18), He could not truly bring us into relationship with the Father. He might offer forgiveness, but not offer closeness. We would never hear the Son’s words to His Father: “You have loved them even as you have loved me”.
We are not just brought before the Father by the Son; we also receive the Spirit with which He was anointed. Jesus said in John 16:14 that the Spirit “will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you”. We learn that the Spirit takes what is the Son’s and makes it ours. When the Spirit rested upon the Son at His baptism, Jesus heard the Father declare from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased”.
But now that the same Spirit of sonship rests on us. As the Son brings us before His Father, with The Spirit in us we can cry, “Abba (Father).”
The more trinitarian the salvation, the sweeter it is.
God exists as three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They shared a loving relationship before the creation of the universe. Created in the image of God, people were created to love God and to love each other.
Being triune, our God is a sharing God. He has relational love toward His creation, and wants to share this with humanity. But when people rejected this love, the trinity demonstrated its extent when God the Son (Jesus Christ) died to restore this relationship.
The fact that God is triune is the main distinguishing feature of Christianity. It’s what makes Christianity different to other religions. The Trinity is central to who God is and shapes every aspect of Christian belief. For example, prayer is only possible because God is triune.
Appendix A: Additional comments on “What makes Christianity special”
Comments on items in the table marked with an asterix.
When a Mormon/Latter Day Saint (LDS) says “Jesus is the Son of God” what they mean is that Jesus is a spiritual child born to god the heavenly father and his wife in the celestial realm, he is not eternal but was born. Moreover, we were all born to the heavenly as spiritual children in the celestial realm in the same way. However, Jesus was the first born and head of all the spiritual children and as such has a special relationship to the heavenly father and was conceived on earth virginally and so is special in that sense as well. Additionally, In LDS theology, we can all progress to become gods; Jesus is higher up that ladder than us – he is a glorified. Due to Jesus’s uniqueness in these last two points he is “the divine son of god”. The holy spirit (holy ghost in their language) is in a similar position. Both are separate beings from the heavenly father.
In Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) theology, Jesus is a higher spiritual being. Specifically, he is the chief archangel Michael. He was the first creation of god the father and then he was involved and assisted in the creation of all other things. Being the only thing directly created by god makes him “the only begotten son.” In JW theology the holy spirit is not a person but just a way of referring to god’s active force in the world.
We should also add that the resurrection is only spiritual in JW thought.
When we say Hindus think Jesus was divine, he is thought just to be one manifestation of the ultimate monadic divine entity/force that is called Brahman.
Appendix B: Prayer and the trinity
The only reason why prayer is possible is because God is triune. We cannot pray to the Father except through the mediator, Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 7:25; 12:24), which is why we petition the Father in Jesus’ name (Jn. 14:13–14; 16:23–26). And it is the Spirit who guides us in prayer, and He is even the sphere in which our prayer begins (Rom. 8:26–27; Jude 20).
“An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God—that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying—the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on—the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his prayers. The man is being caught up into the higher kinds of life—what I called Zoe or spiritual life: he is being pulled into God, by God, while still remaining himself.” (Lewis, 1952).
Bird M F, 2020, “Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction”, Zondervan Academic.
Grudem W, 2020, “Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine”, Intervarsity Press, UK.
Gunton C, 1999, “The One, the Three and the Many”, Cambridge University Press, 164.
Lewis C S, 1952, “Mere Christianity”, Harper Collins: 2001, 163
Reeves M, 2012, “Delighting in the Trinity – An Introduction to the Christian faith”, Intervarsity Press Academic.
This blogpost was sourced from a presentation by Dr Tom Murphy (a chemist) who lives in Sydney, Australia.
Posted February 2022
Also see: Biblical evidence of the Trinity