The Doctrine of the Trinity: Three Distinct Persons

Trinity_3Over the weekend I presented the first part of a ‘bare-bones’ outline of the Trinity. In short order, I argued that the doctrine can be sub-divided into two basic assertions, which each require a healthy dose of explaining.  The first proposition is God is one God. The second proposition is God is three Persons. Under those headings I added the following points.

God is One God

  1. The Father is God.
  2. The Son is God.
  3. The Holy Spirit is God.
  4. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are Uncreated, Co-Eternal, Inseparable, and Perfectly Equal in Essence.

God is Three Persons

  1. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  2. The Father Sends the Son and the Spirit.
  3. The Son is Sent by the Father, and Sends the Spirit.
  4. The Spirit is One Sent by Father and Son.
  5. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit works together to create the cosmos, sustain life, and redeem the church.
  6. God’s visible actions in history reveals his invisible triune nature.

Because of the difference in classification (God and persons) there is no logical inconsistency between saying God is ‘one’ and God is ‘three.’ Still, there is natural difficulty (not too mention the effect of sin on our thinking) in trying to understand how God is one and three. On the one hand, natural man cannot grasp an infinite God—even with God’s inspired word. On the other hand, God’s revelation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit guides Christians to a true but incomplete knowledge of him.

Keeping our creatureliness and Godward-dependence in mind as we approach this doctrine, this outline aims to help us put some of the pieces together.  Since, I’ve already laid out a defense of God as one God, the  next step is to pick up the second proposition—God is three persons—and  consider the first four points.

These four points relate to the way Scripture speaks of the one God in three persons (point 1) and how each person relates differently to the others in the Trinity (points 2-4). Later this week, we’ll consider the last two points (points 5-6), that concern how God’s unified work in redemptive history (God ad extra, or the economic trinity) reveals something about who God is in and of himself (God ad intra, or the ontological trinity).

God is Three Persons

1. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

The most definitive statement on the one God’s triune nature is found in Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). In this verse, Jesus speaks of one “name” defined as three persons (“Father . . . Son . . . and Holy Spirit”).

Matthew 28:19

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, . . .

Beyond Jesus’ statement, the New Testament regularly lists triads that suggest God’s trinitarian nature by collocating Father, Son, and Spirit together in the same verse.  Sometimes the language is God, Lord, and Spirit, or some other combination, but the trio of personal terms reflects a growing trinitarian theology. I say that these triads suggest a trinitarian theology because none of them make a dogmatic assertions concerning the nature of God’s three-in-oneness. Still, the repetition of these triads gives strong evidence for God as three persons. Here is an extended list of verses citations with a sampling of the triads.

Old Testament: Psalm 33:6; Isaiah 48:16; Isaiah 63:9-10; Haggai 2:5-7 (see also Num 6:24-26).

The Gospels: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are evident in the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:18-23; Luke 1:35), the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:16; Luke 3:22), the temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-10), and the prayer of Jesus (John 17).

John: John’s Gospel is the most ‘trinitarian’ of any book in the New Testament. This will be shown below.

Paul: Romans 1:1-4; 5:1-5; 6:4; 8:1-4; 8-9, 11, 14-17; 15:16, 30; 1 Corinthians 6:11; 8:6; 12:4-6; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; 3:3-4; 5:5-8; 13:14; Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 1:3-14; 2:18, 22; 3:2-5, 14-17; 4:4-6; 5:18-20; Phil 3:3; Colossians 1:6-7; 3:16-17; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-6; 5:18-19; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; 1 Timothy 3:15-16; Titus 3:4-6.

General Epistles and Revelation: Hebrews 2:3-4; 6:4-6; 9:14; 10:29-31; 1 Peter 1:2; 4:13-19; 1 John 4:2, 13-14; 5:6-12; Jude 20-21; Revelation 1:4-5.

The New Testament also contains numerous passages where two of the members of the trinity are mentioned. Notice especially Paul’s greetings which regularly include God the Father and Christ the Lord.

Father and Son: Romans 6:4; 1 Corinthians 15:24-28; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:3; 6:23-24; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:2; 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4.

Christ and Spirit: John 14:16, 18, 23; Acts 16:7; 20:28 (‘God’ here speaks of Jesus); Romans 8:2, 9; 2 Corinthians 3:17; Galatians 3:3; 5:16, 25; 4:6; Philippians 1:19; 1 Peter 1:10.

Father and Spirit: In the New Testament, there are very few instances of the Father and the Spirit being mentioned without the Son. One place God and the Spirit come together is 1 Corinthians 2:11, 14, where Paul describes the Spirit as knowing the mind of God. Another way God and the Spirit are used together is when Scripture speaks of the “Spirit of God.” In the OT, this language is used without explicit reference to the Son, for Christ had not come yet (Gen 1:2; Exod 31:3; 35:31; Num 24:2; 1 Sam 10:10; 1 Sam 11:6; 19:20, 23; 2 Chron 15;1; 24:20; Job 27:3; 33:4; Ezek 11:24; Dan 5:14). In the New Testament, the “Spirit of God” is sometimes distinguished from the Spirit of Christ, but never is the Son absent from the surrounding context (see Rom 8:14;  1 Cor 7:40; Eph 4:30). Of course, keep in mind, Romans 8:9 shows that the “Spirit of God” is appropriately the “Spirit of Christ.”

Finally, here is a sampling of Old Testament and New Testament triads.

Psalm 33:6

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.

Isaiah 48:16

Draw near to me, hear this: from the beginning I have not spoken in secret, from the time it came to be I have been there.” And now the Lord God has sent me, and his Spirit.

Isaiah 63:9-10

In all their affliction he [YHWH] was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them.

1 Corinthians 8:6

. . . yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, . . . 

1 Corinthians 12:4-6

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.

2 Corinthians 13:14

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Galatians 4:6-7

And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

Ephesians 4:4-6

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

1 Peter 1:1-2

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:

Jude 20-21

But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God,waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.

When we combine these verses with those verses in the first list that espouse divinity to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we have the makings of a trinitarian theology–the Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God; only the Father, Son, and Spirit are God; and these three ‘persons’ are regularly related to one another as evidenced by this collection of triads.

Still, there is more. The next three points show how the economic movements of the Trinity differ. As Wayne Grudem notes, “The only distinctions between the members of the Trinity are in the ways they relate to each other and to creation” (Systematic Theology, 251). To put it in the vocabulary of John the Apostle, the Father sends, the Son is sent and sends the Spirit, and the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son. We consider these differences in the next three points.

2. The Father Sends the Son and the Spirit

The word “sent” is regularly employed by the apostle John to speak of the inner-trinitarian relations at work in redemptive history. In John’s gospel, the beloved disciple speaks of God ‘sending’ the Son thirty-seven times (John 3:17; 3:34; 4:34; 5:23-24, 36, 37, 38; 6:29, 38-39, 44, 57; 7:16, 28, 29, 33; 8:18, 26, 29, 42; 10:36; 11:42; 12:44-45, 49; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5; 17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25; 20:21).

  • Sometimes it is the ‘Father’ who is the acting subject (3:17; 5:23-24, 36, 37; 6:44, 57; 8:18, 42; 12:49; 14:24; 17:21, 25; 20:21).
  • Sometimes it is a pronominal ‘him’ referring to the Father (3:34; 4:34; 5:38; 6:29, 38-39; 7:16, 28, 29, 33; 8:26, 29; 10:36; 11:42; 12:44-45; 13:20; 15:21; 16:5; 17:8, 18, 23).
  • Once it is ‘God’ who sends the Son (17:3).

Here is a sampling of the verses.

John 3:17

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

John 5:23-24

That all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

John 5:36-37

But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, . . . 

John 6:44

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

John 6:57

As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.

John 17:3, 21, 25

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. . . . that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. . . . O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me.

John 20:21

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

In addition to sending the Son, the Father also sends the Spirit by means of the Son. This ‘sending’ is not as prominent in John’s Gospel. The reason can probably be attributed to two factors: (1) John’s Gospel is about Jesus; the Spirit is only prominent in chapters 14-16 when Jesus teaches his disciples about the coming of the Spirit. (2) John lays stress on the sending of the Spirit as a result of Christ’s exaltation to heaven. Therefore, the Spirit is sent at the behest of Jesus (John 20:22), even as it is the Father’s work to send the Spirit (John 14:26).

John 14:26

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 have said to you.

John 20:22

And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

3. The Son is Sent by the Father, and Sends the Spirit

Three times in John’s Gospel Jesus is the person responsible for initiating the sending of the Spirit. Here is what John records.

John 15:26

“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.

John 16:7

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.

John 20:22

And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

4. The Spirit is the One Sent by Father and Son

This point is the mirror image of the last two. The Scriptures says less about the Spirit, because the Spirit’s role is to glorify the Son (16:14) and to testify to the Father and the Son (15:26). For this reason, the Spirit has been called the quiescent member (the quiet member) of the Trinity. Still there are a number verses from which we can speak of the Spirit being sent into the world. Not surprisingly, they relate to the Day of Pentecost and the redemptive-historical moment when God came to dwell among men (cf. John 14:17).

Joel 2:28-32

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.

“And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.

John 14:17

Even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be  in you.

Luke 24:49

And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

Acts 1:8

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Acts 2

Last, the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2 records the Spirit being poured out on the church (i.e., the gather ones) in Jerusalem. With the gift of the Spirit, these new creations in Christ become the temple of the living God, indwelt by God’s spirit (cf. 1 Cor 6:19). At the same time, they are one in the spirit with Jesus Christ, so that by the Spirit they are in inseparable union with the Son, and by extension, the Father (see John 17). Altogether, the gift of the Spirit not only fulfills prophecy, it conjoins—in a spiritual and covenantal sense—God to man, man to God.

In the end, we can see from the Scriptures listed above ample testimony to God as three distinct persons. Coupled with the biblical passages that affirm the unity of God, these passages make it clear that the God who is one God is simultaneously and co-eternally three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit and that each person is unique in role, but equal in divine essence. It is these twin truths—the oneness of God’s deity and the three-ness of God’s personhood that stand at the core of his trinitarian nature.

Next week, we will consider what the redemptive-historical roles mean for each member of the Trinity, and how the economic Trinity images the immanent Trinity. Until then, let me know if you see other triads or texts that make plain the distinct persons of the Triune God.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

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