Like the parables Jesus shared, I believe practical illustrations are excellent tools for gaining understanding of complex teachings. However, when discussing the doctrine of the Trinity, all illustrations seem to fall short, making this subject one of the most difficult and perplexing doctrines to comprehend.
Perhaps one of the reasons great illustrations for the Trinity are scarce is because nothing in creation completely mirrors the complex relationship of the triunity of God. For example, there is the popular illustration of the multifaceted man. He is a husband, a father, and a son all at the same time, but he is not the husband, father, and son in the same relation. Another example often used is water. You can find water as a liquid, a solid, or a gas. However, water is never found in all three forms at the same time.
While the word trinity is not found in the Bible, the doctrine is clearly taught throughout both the Old and New Testaments. The word trinity comes from tri and unity, or triunity, and is best explained in three statements:
- God eternally exists as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
- Each person is fully God
- There is only one God.
Though the trinity is indeed mysterious and even paradoxical, it is in no way a contradiction. With regard to the holy trinity, the idea does not imply that God is one and three in the same sense, but that God is one and three in a different sense. The two senses that I am referring to in the previous statements relate to His existence. God exists as one being and as three persons. This idea is sometimes captured in the descriptive alternative term Godhead, which refers to the oneness of God and the unity of three.
The first of the two senses is being. God is one in being. Here, a physical analogy is helpful in understanding the spiritual truth found in this word. Being is the “stuff” one is made of. Human bodies are comprised of molecules and other microscopic elements. We refer to this “stuff” as our essence. However, God is spirit (John 4:24), so He does not consist of substances as we do. His essence is divinity.
The second sense is person. God is three persons. This is probably the most confusing part of the doctrine, since we generally think of actual people when the word ‘person’ is used, but the term refers to a personal identity or individuality. It is “a form of personal existence other than a difference in being.”1 This does not mean that the personhood of the Godhead consists of independent individuals, but rather that each person refers to Himself as “I” and the two others as “You.” Therefore, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are distinct subjects with the ability to personally interact.
The distinction between the three persons within the Trinity is a literal difference, but not an essential difference in the sense of being. Each has the pure essence of deity and therefore maintains a real and substantial existence. They have differences within the scope of their being, but each does not have a separate being or essence. And while they are separate in their existence, they are all fully God.
The reality of the Trinity is proof of God’s transcendence and mysteriousness. While the doctrine of the Trinity is knowledge that should be pursued and believed, it cannot be fully comprehended because it is beyond our finite abilities. The truth of God’s triunity is a reminder of our human boundaries and God’s limitlessness.
Verses for Further Reflection
2 Corinthians 13:14
1 Peter 1:2
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (InterVarsity Press and Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), p. 255.