The trinity is not clear to me and I believe it is a core teaching of Christianity. But if God is ONE how can he be three in one? According to Christian belief, doesn’t Jesus have a son/father relationship with God? If Jesus is God in himself, why would he pray to his father (God) in his hour of need? What is the Holy Spirit?
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Defining the Trinity doctrine (Part 1)
There is no truly satisfactory way to explain the concept of the Trinity because in the end it is a mystery beyond our comprehension as human beings. Maybe one day in heaven when the limitations of our mind are lifted it will be clear but for now it’s a real conundrum that some cannot overcome.
To begin a proper discussion however, we must first understand what Christians are saying and NOT saying when they proclaim the Trinity as a core belief. The basics of the doctrine are these:
- There is but one God.
- The Father, the Son and the Spirit is each fully and eternally God.
- The Father, the Son and the Spirit is each a distinct person.
Therefore, Christians absolutely do not believe in three Gods or that the Father, Son and Spirit each comprise a part of God that added together equals him. I have heard some interesting variations out there of what Christians supposedly believe (even adding Mary the mother of Jesus into the equation) but most of it is rooted in misunderstanding of the doctrine. Many will disagree with the core belief but I would rather they have a clear understanding of exactly what they are disagreeing with.
Some imperfect illustrations (Part 2)
How is it possible to be both three and one at the same time? Even Christians who believe it to be true find it difficult to wrap their mind around it. They simply accept it on faith, which the Bible defines this way: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) For instance it is faith that enabled Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his son Isaac when it didn’t make sense to him that God would require it. Faith trusts God even when evidence is veiled.
Still, there are some rather imperfect illustrations that theologians have come up with over the years to help our understanding. I’ll list a few of the more famous ones here.
- Man is created with a body, soul and spirit—three in one. You cannot separate out one from the other yet each part is distinct.
- Think of an equilateral triangle: its three corners are inseparable and simultaneous. In fact, the triangle is often used as the symbol of the Trinity.
- St. Augustine, a Christian Father of the faith and great theologian who died in 430 AD compared the Trinity with love that involves a lover, the loved one and a spirit of love between them. In this case the lover would be God the Father, the loved one God the Son and the spirit of love would be God the Holy Spirit.
- St. Patrick is considered the patron saint of Ireland because he largely converted the pagan Isle to Christ. When they could not understand the idea of God being three in one Patrick would hold up a shamrock (a three leaf clover) and challenge his hearers, “Is it one leaf or three?” “It is both one leaf and three,” was their reply. “And so it is with God,” he would conclude.
None of these examples fully explain something that our mind is too small to comprehend. Anyone who believes in the existence of God at all must consider that God is bigger and more than we can take in. Some people have no trouble with the Trinity but they can’t figure out how God can be Omnipresent. How can God be in all places at the same time? Or, how can God be eternal and have no beginning and no end? Or, how can God be Omniscient (all knowing) without affecting our free will?
If we start with the understanding that our understanding is imperfect we will already be ahead of the game. Now let’s go on to WHY Christians believe in the Trinity.
Why do Christians believe in the Trinity? (Part 3)
Christians accept the Bible as God’s inspired Word so whatever is in the Bible is considered absolute truth. Yet there is no Bible verse that says explicitly that there are three persons in one God. So where do we get that from?
God reveals himself as such in many places in both the Old and New Testament but I will only have time here to explore one: the baptism of Jesus. It is a good example because we see the Father, Son and Spirit together in the same place at the same time.
The scripture recounts it this way: “After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.’” (Matthew 3:16-17)
In this passage all three persons are present and distinct from one another. Yet later in the ministry of Jesus he declared, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30) Also Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would comfort and teach them after he returned to heaven. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” (John 14:26)
The Father, Son and Holy Spirit all have unique work yet they are one in their purpose to restore man to the deep intimate fellowship that was lost when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden. We use terms like “they” and speak of God in the plural because our language fails us to truly express the uniqueness and Oneness of our God. The best we can do is come up with a term like “Trinity” to say what is un-sayable.
Jesus both God and man (Part 4)
You ask a good question about the Father/Son relationship between Jesus and his Heavenly Father—God the Father. If Jesus actually were God, why would he pray to God—like praying to himself?
The answer is that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. When he left heaven to take on earthly form he did not give up being God. Yet he humbled himself to become man and was born in the natural way and grew up under parents, subjecting himself to them until it was time to begin his public ministry.
As MAN, Jesus prayed and he gave us the example of how to pray. It was as man that Jesus cried out in the Garden of Gethsemane before he was arrested, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) Likewise on the cross right before death he said, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46) These things exemplify the manhood of Christ even while he remained fully God. I will mention that the duel nature of Jesus Christ is much harder for some to understand and accept than the Trinity. Again, our human language cannot due justice to these great and mysterious truths.
I will also say this in closing: most people do not come to accept Christ because they have become convinced by theological arguments. Christianity is a religion of the heart. The Holy Spirit woos us and we are drawn to Christ and it is our heart that responds to his great love. Though we do not understand perfectly we know it is truth because he is truth.
I end with the words of Jesus: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6)