Defining the Trinity
The task of defining the doctrine of the Trinity can be tricky. It is difficult to define because we don’t have anything in the universe like the Triune God. If someone was to ask you to describe God and give two examples, what would you say? Please don’t say that task would be easy; it would betray your depth of knowledge of God. The process of utilizing words, you are left with a task of describing the one God, creator and sustainer of the entire universe; an all-powerful, all knowing, immaterial being without beginning or end; omnipresent throughout the universe, perfect in every way and designer of all living creatures including our complex human bodies. The truth is all definitions of God will fall short. Fortunately, we have the Bible to give us some clues to describing this God.
Doctrines like the Trinity are not directly spelled out in the Bible. However, that doesn’t mean the Bible doesn’t teach the Trinity, it just means the Bible doesn’t use word Trinity to describe God. This forced the early church to come up with language that accurately described what the Bible taught about the Trinity. For over a hundred years they struggled to find key words to explain how you can have one God and yet the Bible teaches the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all divine. Eventually, in the 2nd and 3rd century, Tertullian provided some terms that would help in the work of defining the Trinity. The key words in his writings were Trinitas, substantia, and persona, all Latin terms for the English words Trinity, substance, and person. These provided theologians the key words needed to define the Trinity. The following are basic definitions needed for understanding the doctrine.
Person – When we hear the word “person” we must set aside any physical limitations attached to the term. The definition of a person is the non-physical or immaterial traits such as will, knowledge, love, and the ability to communicate.
Nature – Essential attributes or characteristics of a living being or thing. Another word for nature can be substance (Latin substantia). Examples can include a human nature or divine nature. While Jesus was physically with his disciples he had two natures, fully God and fully man, two natures in one person. All of us on the other hand only have one nature a human nature.
Polytheism – A belief in more than one god.
Monotheism – A belief in only one God.
Tritheism – A belief in 3 gods. For example Mormons believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are 3 separate and unique gods. This is not taught in the Bible.
Four definitions of the doctrine of the Trinity: All of them are based on what the Bible teaches.
1. One God subsists in 3 persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (This definition was passed down from the early church)
2. Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three coequal and coeternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. – Dr. James White
3. One what (Being or essence of God) and three who’s (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) – Hank Hanagraaff President of the Christian Research Institute
4. One God with three (personal) centers of consciousness – Dr. Frank Beckwith
As I have outlined, the early church fathers in their response to false teachings, began the process of using words to demonstrate the Trinity was Biblical. Next I will show you how various scriptures form the foundation for the Trinity.
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