The word Trinity (tri-unity) itself does not occur in the Bible but the teaching of the Trinity is founded upon a rich array of Holy Scripture and is, in fact, held as a benchmark of orthodoxy across the sweep of Christendom. Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism along with all other major Protestant denominations hold Trinity to be revealed truth.
My purpose is to construct a simple overview of this doctrine, and to affirm that the mystery and reality of the Trinity can be experienced even when not fully understood.
We begin with the introductory sentence of the Shema of the Old Testament: Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one (Deuteronomy 6:4).
God’s chosen people were to pray this prayer twice a day. It is in phase with the first Commandment: You shall have no other gods beside me (Exodus 20:3). The Lord God of Israel was One and unrivaled in the religions of pagan neighbors.
But if God is One, how then can Jesus also be God? And how can the Holy Spirit be God? For four centuries, the developing ancient church grappled with these questions.
At the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) the conflict was strong. It was the heresy of Arius (Jesus was great but not quite God) against the orthodoxy of Athanasius (Jesus was in every respect God). For the most part, orthodoxy won the day.
But not until the Council of Constantinople (381 A.D.) were the Godhood of Jesus and the Godhood of the Holy Spirit established in the doctrine of the Trinity – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
The doctrine of the Trinity is well supported in the Scriptures. The introduction to the Gospel according to John, for example, gives strong grounding to the full deity of Jesus. He entitles him “the Word.”
When creation was formed, he writes, Jesus already “was.” He was not only with God; he was God. He was the agent of all creation, and he was the light who would give light to all humankind.
In the words of the Nicene Creed, he was “very God of very God”! But can the same be said of the Holy Spirit?
After Jesus ascended into Heaven and the Spirit was poured out with the sound of a mighty wind and the falling of what appeared to be tongues of fire, the newborn church moved forward in the supernatural energy given by the Spirit.
Although the phenomena of Pentecost (wind, fire, speaking in other languages) were powerful to the senses, the young church quickly learned that the Holy Spirit given in power that day was much more than a mere sensation or influence or feeling.
For example, Ananias and his wife Sapphira decided they would try a little deception on church leaders (Acts 5). The Apostle Peter saw through their deception. You have lied to the Holy Spirit, he said. The consequences were dire first for Ananias and then for Sapphira.
Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit? It was clear that the Holy Spirit who was given to guide the church was personal. One cannot lie to a feeling, nor to an idea. Lying and deception are what goes on between persons.
Throughout the Acts of the Apostles and on into the epistles, the Holy Spirit is regarded as a person (the third person of the Godhead) to indwell believers, illuminate and bring to life the Scriptures, and give divine guidance to the church. He teaches, guides, corrects, consoles.
So, how can we say God is one and at the same time three? One way to do so is as follows: God is one in being or essence or Godhead and at the same time three in persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
At Jesus’ baptism the Son was present, the Father spoke from heaven, and the Spirit descended in the form of a dove (Matthew 3:16,17). Not three Gods but One, yet three persons.
The issue is to affirm the unity of God — “The LORD our God is one” – without confusing the Persons – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. They are distinct persons but united as one in the Godhead.
For a summary statement, note the first article of religion for the Free Methodist Church, of which I am a part: There is but one living and true God, the maker and preserver of all things. And in the unity of this Godhead there are three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. These three are one in eternity, deity and purpose; everlasting, of infinite power, wisdom and goodness.