On Understanding the Trinity

By Rod Hemphill

Hello, Readers.

Some time ago, a young lady in our church reported on a conversation she was having with one of her friends at her college.  This friend was having difficulty accepting the God of the Bible because of several confused or erroneous ideas, including an inability to comprehend the concept of God as a trinity.  What follows is my response, edited for a larger audience.

Hi Laura.

A most interesting letter!  Perhaps the following information will help you formulate a suitable response to your friend's letter.  I have excerpted certain quotes from the letter and addressed my remarks to them.  Here we go . . . .

Your friend wrote:

"What you see depends on how you look at it.  Or to use a quote from the movie "Star Wars,"  truth sometimes depends on your point of view.  And most importantly, they can all be valid even though they may be contradictory. . . For example, the concept of God as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  On the surface, it seems nonsensical that one entity can be all three things at once. . .

"I would argue that God is an "incoherent" entity who can manifest in multiple states simultaneously depending on your point of view" . . . One person will see a hazy, "incoherent" entity with indeterminate form (a non-atheist who doesn't believe in any of the world's religions), one person will see the Father (e.g., Judaism), one person will see the Son (e.g., Christianity), and one person will see the Holy Spirit (e.g., New Age Spirituality).  I personally believe in all of the above and that they are all valid points of view."

Well, yes, what the truth is does depend on how you look at it.  Given an actual situation, there may be several truths emanating from it.  But these are differing aspects of truth, rather than contradictions.  When contradictions seem to appear, they are really paradoxes, which means that one's knowledge is incomplete, because reality has no contradictions.

On a more usual level, what the truth is, is determined by the context of the situation and by accuracy and completeness in observing, remembering and recording the facts.   Facts isolated from their context are meaningless and easily misrepresented.

Your friend's identifications of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are overly simplistic, and without further elaboration, are erroneous.

  • Adherents of Judaism worship one God.  But the Jewish scriptures also indicate an awareness of God as a holy Spirit, and of theophanies (visible, tangible manifestations of God), even though Judaism does not think in terms of a trinity.
  • Christianity has emphasized the Son, but has been insistent that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all equal members of the one, single Godhead.
  • The "Holy Spirit" of New Age has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit of the Bible.  New Agers use that term in a cavalier way to mean whatever mystical sense of spirit they have in mind at the moment.  I have a dog which, because of his black mask, we named Bandit.  At one time I also had a pet raccoon, which I named Bandit for the same reason.  Yet despite the facts that they both had black masks, both were mammals, both were my pets, and both seemed to exhibit some affection to me, "Bandit" the raccoon did not correspond in any way to "Bandit" the dog.  They were two distinctly different realities.  When a New Ager refers to the Holy Spirit, he does not mean the Holy Spirit of the Bible.

The confusion or complexity of the Trinity (i.e., how a single essence can be three separate entities) disappears when one considers composite forms, such as water or a triumvirate, or modes of manifestation.  For example,

  • Water is made up of 2 distinct, identifiable elements –oxygen and hydrogen.  But joined together as a compound, they create water.  The oxygen is still there and identifiable, and so also the hydrogen, but joined together they appear as a new thing –water.  So also, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the three elements of the Trinity, but together they form a new thing, and this new thing is what we call God.

And a different illustration would be a . . .

  • Triumvirate.  In Roman times, a triumvirate referred to three officers or magistrates acting jointly.  In the case of the Trinity, you would have three distinct personages joined together to form a new identifiable unit called a triumvirate or Trinity.  Without any of the three, the triumvirate would not exist.  But together, the three form a new ruling unit.  When any one of the three delivers the decrees of the triumvirate, you may be looking at just one of the three, but you are not dealing with him as an individual.  You are dealing with him as one in whom the full authority and existence of the triumvirate is embodied.  According to this way of picturing it, the Trinity is a form of triumvirate, which the Bible refers to as the Godhead (–Acts 17:29; Romans 1:20; Colossians 2:9).
  • But there is also another way in which the Trinity is sometimes understood, in which the three personas of the Trinity are seen as three separate ways in which the one and same God manifests himself to mankind, accommodating our inability to otherwise have any comprehension of Him who inhabits a dimension of reality beyond human comprehension.

However your friend may choose to think of it, these illustrations may help him better comprehend the idea of Trinity, or Tri-Unity. 

When the ancients of the Bible thought of the Creator, they thought of God.  When they thought of the One who delivered them from bondage in Egypt and gave them His covenant and commandments, they thought of this God.  When they encountered no ordinary angel, but One they referred to as "The Angel of the Lord," they knew they had been in the presence of God.  After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, his disciples came to recognize that this Jesus was the human embodiment of this same God.  When His Holy Spirit continued to work among them, they recognized this Spirit to be the Spirit of God.  They didn't try to explain how He could be three in one, but they knew that in each of these forms, they had experienced the presence of God.  For them, "seeing was believing," and then –having accepted that as true and experiencing salvation from within their relationship with this God- "believing is seeing" led them into deeper understandings of spiritual realities.

It is good that your friend asks questions and tries to understand things better.  But he doesn't need to be a religious scholar to understand that there is a Creator, or to perceive in the Bible what God wants us to know and to do (Psalm 19:1ff.; Romans 1:18ff.).  It is obvious to anyone who is willing to accept reality as the reality it is, and who takes the attitude, "God, I don't care what the truth is.  Please just show me what the truth is!"

Of all the religions and belief systems in the world, only the Bible and Biblically based faith are grounded in the concrete events of history.  Since this is reality and not someone's reworking the historical record to fit an agenda or speculative theory, skeptics have always ended up broken on the anvil of reality. 

In contrast, the fallacious claims and empty speculations of other religions and philosophies have become apparent when the light of reality has been allowed to shine upon them.  Reality and the facts of science and history are the Bible's friends.  Therefore, it is essential that your friend allows for the possibility that the Bible might be true, and finally meets and accepts Jesus --who is the author of truth.  Otherwise,

  • he can waste all of his efforts of inquiry in entertaining but worthless speculation;
  • he can be deceived into believing certain speculative systems are the way of truth, so that he believes a lie and falls short of experiencing the reality of the matter;
  • he can come to a premature and faulty conclusion --that truth is unknowable, or that truth is whatever you want it to be,

. . . whereas, in point of fact, truth describes reality, and therefore, whatever a truth may be, it describes an existential fact rather than a speculative imagining.

Finally, it is important that your friend realizes whether he is looking for God or looking for objections to believing in the God of the Bible.  Looking for objections preoccupies one's attention, prejudices his understanding, and prevents him from ever discovering the truth about his subject of inquiry, whatever it may be.

The logical and correct approach is to discern the validity of what evidence there actually is for the subject of inquiry –in this case, the existence of God and his essence as a Trinity- and then having established the reality, then work out the problems and seeming inconsistencies.

In the case of God, the Bible describes God in terms that are logically consistent and square with what an examination of every aspect of our being, our world and our universe suggest such a God would be (unlike the gods of polytheism or theosophical speculation), and a clue for us to expect such or a challenge for us to pursue is given in Romans 1.19-20 and Hebrews 11.3. 

And illustrations of a trinitarian form are found throughout nature to help us comprehend essences made up of three entities, beginning with the three-fold essence of the atom (protons+neutrons+electrons).  Each of the three are individually identifiable.  But if you remove any of these three, you no longer have an atom.

Although skeptics try to define faith as superstition and science as factual, the fact of the matter is that a genuine faith is always the logical conclusion of a sufficiency of evidence, and that the factual conclusions of scientific inquiry always support faith in the Creator and God of the Bible, rather than providing evidence for existence apart from this God.  Anyone who thinks otherwise has not adequately examined the evidence, or has failed to sift a scientist's speculations out from his actual factual evidence.  But this is a whole other exciting discourse in itself.

May the Lord be with you in your life, your mission, and as you consider your response to your friend!

Pastor Rod.

Other Articles by Rod:
Information Regarding Sex Offenders
Seasons of Life
Refiner's Fire
The Danger of Christianity to Secularism
Fundamental Questions of Life
Essay On Terrorism's War Against Civilization

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