Trinitarian: A Biblical Defense of the Trinity
Trinitarian: A Biblical Defense of the Trinity
In The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer (1961) defines and delineates the different attributes of God. Throughout his book, he presents the classic orthodox views of God, such as God’s omnipresence, omniscience, and sovereignty, in a devotional style that propels any serious reader toward a deeper level of devotion to the infinitely holy and perfectly just God of the universe. However, the most powerful words of Tozer’s book relate to his position that what a person thinks about God is the most important thing about him (p. 1). An individual’s idea of God will affect every area of his life. Worship, theology, and daily Christian living are performed by people in manners consistent with their held beliefs about the nature and character of God.
Thus, if the Bible teaches that God is a Trinity, no Christian should balk at this doctrine because of its incomprehensibility or its apparent contradictions. It should be obvious to the observant reader that the doctrine of the Trinity rests upon a solid biblical foundation and can be supported by both the Old and the New Testaments. Also, in spite of the fierce attacks against this doctrine by many aberrant forms of Christianity, the Trinity has been maintained by the church throughout her history. Finally, that God is a Trinity is essential to explaining the character of God and the Incarnation of the Son of God. The Trinity is a foundational tenet of the faith and should be defended by Christians against any opposition.
A Defense of the Trinity
Historically, the church has defined the Trinity as the belief that God exists eternally as three separate person- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Williams, 1996). Obviously, this definition has a few components that require further explanation. First, the Christian faith has always and unequivocally asserted that there is only one God. Monotheism is a belief system with especially strong roots in the Old Testament. For example, Moses wrote the famous and often-recited Shema, declaring, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Elsewhere, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God” (Isaiah 44:6). In a world replete with pagan, polytheistic religions, the Old Testament writers rang the clarion bell that there is but one God (Williams, 1996).
The New Testament also emphasizes the reality of monotheism. Christ himself reiterated the great Shema, stating that “the first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord” (Mark 12:29). Further, the apostle Paul reaffirmed the Old Testament’s conspicuous monotheism in his polemic to the Galatians, writing succinctly that “God is one” (Galatians 3:20). Other examples of the New Testament’s confirmation of the Old Testament’s monotheism could be presented, but these two accentuate the fact that the New Testament does, in fact, teach the oneness of God.
Furthermore, not only does the Bible teach that there is only one God, but as the biblical witness demonstrates, this one God exists eternally as three persons, and each person is considered deity (Geisler, 2011). For instance, the divinity of the Father is evidenced repeatedly throughout the letters of Paul. After addressing the congregation at Rome, he wrote, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7). Moreover, Jesus contended that he was the second member of the holy Trinity by claiming equality with God, on many occasions accepting the worship of his followers and forgiving the sins of the sick. Finally, the deity of the Holy Spirit can be seen in the fact that he exhibits the various attributes of God, possesses the divine names of God, and performs the acts of God (Geisler, 2011, p. 545). Clearly, God exists eternally as a unity in essence and a plurality of persons.
That God is a Trinity can be observed in the Old Testament. For example, the very first verse in the Bible displays a plurality of person in the Godhead. According to theologian John MacArthur, “The Hebrew term (Elohim) rendered ‘God’ contains a plural suffix that presents a singular God expressed as a plurality” (MacArthur, 1999, p. 54). Also, the plurality of persons in the Godhead is implied by the use of plural pronous in connection with God. This is evident in the story about the Tower of Babel, as people with unrestrained zeal attempt to reach the heavens with a massive structure. The Lord, in speaking about his plan, proclaims, “Let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:7). Obviously, if God were not a plurality of persons, then the usage of this plural pronoun is both wrong and misleading.
The doctrine of the Trinity becomes clearer in the New Testament. In many instances, all three persons of the Trinity are mentioned in either the same verse or the same event (Geisler, 2011). The most memorable example of this is the baptism of Jesus Christ before the beginning of his earthly ministry. As he was plunged beneath the water, the Bible records that a dove, representing the Spirit of God descended upon him and that a voice reverberated from heaven, declaring that “this is my beloved Son” (Matthew 3:16, 17). Added to the rest of the biblical witness, this event demonstrates that the eternal God is, indeed, three distinct persons who operate concurrently to execute the will of God.
In his scholarly yet highly readable Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem (1994) admits that finite humans can never fully understand God. Thinking about God, especially that he is a Trinity, boggles the human mind and forces him to admit his insufficiency in completely comprehending and adequately articulating the Sovereign Being who created everything out of nothing. However, even though finite humans cannot fully understand God, they can “know God truly” (Grudem, 1994, p. 151). God has revealed himself through Christ, conscience, Creation, and the Scriptures, and all that is disclosed about God in each of these is true. Although a finite human can know God truly, his innate depravity and finiteness restrict him from understanding the Infinite fully.
One of the most effective ways that finite humans can begin to know God is through the use of effective illustrations, especially in discussions concerning the abstruse topic of the Trinity. The adapt apologist Norman Geisler (2011) defends the notion that a triangle represents the tri-unity of God. By definition, a triangle has three angles and three sides at the same time that is only one triangle. Geisler explains, “God is like a triangle, which is one figure yet has three different sides at the same time- there is a simultaneous threeness in the oneness” (p. 551). Of course, no analogy perfectly illustrates the Trinity, but this example, in addition to other sound illustrations, serves the purpose of demonstrating that divine topics are not too foreign for personal apprehension.
An Attack on the Trinity
Unfortunately, not every group who professes Christianity believes in the orthodox views of the Christian faith. Irvine Robertson (1991) devotes an entire book to articulating how cults deviate from a proper understanding of the Scriptures. Every cult is different in a unique way, but each is consistent in that they attack the truth of God’s Word. One doctrine that cults strive feverishly to omit from the Bible is the Trinity. As Robertson observes, the triune nature of God is “vehemently rejected by the cults as being unreasonable and unscriptural” (p. 22). The present-day cults are simply repackaged heresies condemned by eminent church leaders in preceding generations. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the church to respond to the attacks of these cults on the important doctrines of Christendom.
One cult that has succeeded in widely promulgating its false doctrines is the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Walter Martin, in his The Kingdom of the Cults (1965), presents the basic beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and proceeds to offer a pulverizing critique to their untenable theology. Jehovah’s Witnesses have passionately denied the triune nature of God, declaring that reason itself flies in the face of the position that “Jehovah God the Father and Christ Jesus His Son are co-eternal” (Martin, 1965, p. 56). Amazingly, reason is considered the determinant factor for theology, and is given the validity to determine biblical positions. Elsewhere, one leader of this cult has written that the “originator” of the Trinity doctrine is none other than satan himself (Martin, 1965, p. 51). An intelligent Christian must wonder how such a perspective can be defended in light of the entirety of Scripture, besides the fact that God would have had to allow millions of honest Christians to fall for a pernicious plot of the devil.
Christians must beware the tricks of the enemy and be prepared to defend the truth of God’s Word. This requires, of course, a commitment to discovering what the truth is and a conviction that defending the truth is worthwhile. An example of how Christians can become ardent advocates of the faith can be found in a training program hosted by the American Banking Association (Martin, 1965). Every year, thousands of bank tellers are sent to Washington, D. C., for an intensive two-week training course that teaches them how to detect counterfeit money. The surprising fact, however, is that over the entire two-week training course, no bank teller actually touches any counterfeit money; he only touches real money. Walter Martin gives the explanation, “The American Banking Association is convinced that if a man is thoroughly familiar with the original, he will not be deceived by the counterfeit bill, no matter how much like the original it appears” (p. 16). Likewise, if Christians would thoroughly familiarize themselves with the Bible, they would not be led astray by the erroneous doctrines of distorted teachers.
The Necessity of the Trinity
The trinitarian view of God is helpful in further expounding other doctrines of the Bible, including the nature of God. For example, God is omnibenevolent, meaning that love has been an immutable and eternal part of his nature. However, love requires multiple persons and cannot exist apart from some sort of a relationship. In relation to God, this implies that in order for God to be love, he has to exist as a plurality of persons, or else love is only his orientation toward the free moral agents he created. Timothy Keller argues, “If God is unipersonal, then until God created other beings there was no love, since love is something that one person has for another” (Keller, 2008, p. 225). In other words, if God is not a plurality of persons, then he was omnipotent, omniscient, and infinite from eternity, but he was not love until he chose to create the universe. It seems consistent with Scripture to insist that if God is love, then he is also multiple persons, for love, by definition, requires a community of persons.
Another significant doctrine that the Trinity sheds light on is the incarnation. The incarnation is the Christian belief that the eternal Son of God became a man through the virgin Mary in order to accomplish the redemption of fallen man. As Douglas Groothuis observes, however, “Without the doctrine of the Trinity, the incarnation, which is the lynchpin of Christianity, makes no sense” (Groothuis, 2011, p. 84). All three members of the Trinity were present through the life of Christ and participated in carrying out the plan of God. Remarkably, they were each influential even at Christ’s resurrection, for it was accomplished through the power of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost (MacArthur, 1999). Thus, in light of the biblical data, the incarnation makes the most sense with a trinitarian perspective.
Erwin Lutzer (1998) gives an illustration in his book The Doctrines that Divide that highlights the necessity of precision. Many years ago, when the telegraph was a major means of communication, there was a code for every punctuation mark. During this time, a woman was vacationing in Europe, and she observed a beautiful bracelet that she wanted to buy for $75,000. She cabled her husband, asking if he would permit her to purchase the expensive piece of jewelry. He responded, “No, price too high.” However, the cable operator forgot to include the comma in relaying the message to her; the wife simply saw, “No price too high.” Needless to say, because of this minute mistake, she thought this was an expression of her husband’s abounding love and subsequently purchased the bracelet (Lutzer, 1998).
As has often been the case of opponents to Christianity, some will rail against the technicality of the Trinity, insisting that it is an unnecessary doctrine maintained by an antiquated religion steeped in a myopic tradition. Nevertheless, it should be observed that egregious heresies do not begin as gargantuan monsters, easily discerned by even the most immature Christian. Rather, as J. Rodman Williams (1996) writes, “A heresy may begin as an honest misapprehension of a certain truth but, by being held over a period of time, it becomes increasingly distorted” (p. 20). Although the Trinity may appear to be an unimportant doctrine that can be disregarded without a subsequent effect on other tenets of the faith, no doctrine is maintained in isolation, and a denial of the Trinity will have catastrophic repercussions on other areas of theology, worship, and practical Christian living.
Geisler, Norman (2011). Systematic Theology in One Volume. Minneapolis: Bethany House.
Groothuis, Douglas (2011). Christian Apologetics. Downers Grove: InterVarsity.
Grudem, Wayne (1994). Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Keller, Timothy (2008). The Reason for God. New York: Riverhead Books.
Lutzer, Erwin (1998). The Doctrines that Divide. Grand Rapids: Kregel.
MacArthur, John (1999). Nothing But the Truth. Wheaton: Crossway.
Martin, Walter (1965). The Kingdom of the Cults. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship.
Robertson, Irvine (1991). What the Cults Believe. Chicago: Moody Press.
Tozer, A. W. (1961). The Knowledge of the Holy. San Francisco: Harper Collins.
Williams, J. Rodman (1996). Renewal Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.