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The Holy Trinity (Part One)

Because the term "Trinity" does not appear anywhere in the Bible, we need to explore i) the origin of the word and the doctrine it refers to; ii) Old Testament indications; iii) New Testament revelation; iv) the Persons of the Trinity and v) early divergencies in the church, which prompted the church fathers to formulate the doctrine.

Points 1-3 are discussed in Part One of this article; points 4-5 in Part Two.

1. The word "Trinity" and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity

The word was first coined as a theological expression by Tertullian, a Latin early church father, towards the close of the second century. When the concept of the deity of Christ was attacked, the church felt compelled to formulate a full doctrine of the Trinity. Under the leadership of Athanasius, Irenaeus and Origen, the doctrine was accepted at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. A century later Augustine's formulation of the doctrine became accepted as the so-called Athanasian Creed which is still in force today.

The doctrine states: 1) There is only one true and living God; 2) He subsists in three equal Persons: Father, Son and Holy spirit; 3) although equal in nature, as far as relation is concerned, the Son and the Spirit are subordinate to the Father. The divine unity is therefore a compound unity; the three persons co-operate with one mind and purpose. The Father is pre-eminantly Creator, the Son Redeemer and the Holy Spirit Sanctifier; yet all three co-operate in every aspect of the work.

The doctrine of the Trinity has been derived from the revelation of the Godhead in the New Testament. As with all revelation, what may only be implied in the Old Testament is revealed with greater distinctness in the Atonement and the N.T. writings. Nevertheless, because the doctrine of the Trinity is a fundamental doctrine, it is announced at the beginning of revelation in the O.T.

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2. The doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament

In an environment of polytheism, the main task of the O.T. was to reveal the existence of the one living and true God. Nevertheless, as this revelation was given, it implied a plurality of Persons in the Godhead. During the exile, one of the things that kept the Jews together as a nation, was the importance they attached to Deuteronomy 6:4, "Hear O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is one." Yet this scripture implies a tri-unity: the Hebrew word "echad" used here expresses a unity, as opposed to the word "yachid" which is equal to our "one." Therefore this scripture hints at three Persons as a unity.

The plural names of God like Elohim and Adonai are regarded by some as the "pluralis excellentiae" of the oriental languages, but taken together with scriptures that speak of God as more than one, the plural forms fit in with the doctrine of the Trinity. Besides, Elohim is sometimes used in the Hebrew with a plural adjective [1] and with a plural verb. [2] The same explanation of "pluralis excellentiae" has been given to passages where God refers to Himself in the plural, i.e. "Let us make man in our image;" [3] "The man is become as one of us;" [4] "Let us go down and there confound their language." [5] To this one can reply that as polytheism was the great sin of the world, unless a plurality in the Godhead was really the fact, we might expect such language to be avoided. It is interesting to note that "Let us make man in our image" is followed in the next verse by "so God created man in His own image," [6] thus interchanging plural with singular, "suggesting plurality in unity." [7]

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There are passages in the O.T. where God, His Word and His Spirit are brought together as co-causes of events: In the account of creation, Elohim is said to create by means of His Word and Spirit; [8] the creative activity of God is associated with the Word personified as "Wisdom," [9] and with the Spirit as the Dispenser of creative ability in man. [10]

However, in the unfolding revelation concerning redemption, this three-fold source becomes more evident: the Messiah is regarded as a Person distinct from God, yet He is given titles like "Immanuel" [11] and "Mighty God;" [12] the Angel of the Lord is given divine titles such as "Lord" and "God," [13] and has power to forgive; [14] the Spirit of God is also mentioned as equipping the Messiah for His work [15] and being poured out on the people [16] for the response of obedience. [17] Regarding God's day of redemption, Isaiah 63:8-10 refers to the Covenant God of Israel, the Angel of His presence and the Holy Spirit grieved by their rebellion.

Some Scriptures refer to more than one Jehovah: "Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven;" [18] "'I will strengthen them in the Lord and in His name they will walk,'" declares the Lord;" [19] "This is what the Lord Almighty says: ' .... then you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me;'" [20] "From the time that it was, there am I: and now the Lord God, and His Spirit hath sent me." [21] Foreshadowings of the Trinity have also been seen in the three-fold Aaronic blessing. [22]

3. The doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament

It is especially in the light of the N.T. revelation of the tri-unity of God, that we can read back many implications of it in the O.T. The memorable events of the revelation in the Gospels were:

i) The annunciation. The angel revealed to Mary how all three Persons of the Godhead would be involved in the incarnation: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God." [23]

ii) The baptism of Christ. At His baptism Christ received the witness of His Father and the Holy Spirit. The Father spoke from heaven, declaring His love for and approval of His Son, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily for like a dove. [24]

iii) The teaching of Jesus. He specifically mentioned all three Persons: "I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever - the Spirit of truth." [25] By declaring Himself to be "the Son of God," [26] He was not only "making Himself equal with God" [27] but also said that He "and the Father are one," [28] thus "claim(ing) to be God." [29] His position in the Godhead is also proved by His authority to forgive sin [30] and to give eternal life to all who believe." [31]
Concerning the Holy Spirit, Jesus taught that He was a person who could teach, [32] speak and guide into all truth. [33] He claimed for the Holy Spirit the third place in the Godhead by ascribing to Him works which could only have been accomplished by a divine Person; works such as the conviction of sin, [34] the regeneration of the sinner [35] and the sanctification of the saved sinner. [36]

iv) The commission of the Risen Lord. Before His ascension, Jesus instructed His disciples to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." [37] Significantly, He uses the singular form of the word "name" but mentions three distinct Persons. No one could have expressed the concept of the Trinity as tri-unity more clearly.

The doctrine of the Tinity as expressed in the N.T. writings reveals the three-fold source of redemption. Thus Peter describes believers as having been "chosen according to the fore-knowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ ..." [38] Paul emphasizes that Jesus' work on the cross has reconciled us to God so that "through Him we ... have access to the Father by one Spirit." [39] We may now serve the living God because "the blood of Jesus, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God" has cleansed our consciences. [40] Our inheritance has been guaranteed because we "were included in Christ ... marked in Him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit ... until the redemption of those who are God's possession ..." [41] In the apostolic benediction he interprets the deeper meaning of the Trinity un Christian Experience: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." [42]

The church of Pentecost was founded on the doctrine of the Trinity, as Peter clearly indicated in his explanation of the phenomenon of Pentecost: "God has raised this Jesus to life ... Exalted to the right hand of God, He has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear." [43] Paul differentiates between the work of the three Persons in the church, ascribing the gifts to the Spirit, service to the Lord and "working' to God. [44] Nevertheless, at the same time all three are equally involved in every aspect of the church. For example, each one commissions the ministry, [45] sanctifies God's people, [46] and performs all spiritual operations. [47]

Points 4 and 5 are discussed in part 2 of this article.

References:

1. Joshua 24:18-19
2. Genesis 35:7
3. Genesis 1:26
4. Genesis 3:22
5. Genesis 11:7
6. Genesis 1:26-27
7. Douglas, p.1221
8. Genesis 1:2-3; Psalms 33:6
9. Proverbs 8:27-30
10. Exodus 31:3
11. Isaiah 7:14
12. Isaiah 9:6
13. Genesis 16:3
14. Exodus 23:20-21
15. Isaiah 11:2; 42:1;61:1
16. Joel 2:28
17. Ezekiel 36:27
18. Genesis 19:24
19. Zechariah 10:12
20. Zechariah 2:8-9
21. Isaiah 48:16
22. Numbers 6:24
23. Luke 1:35
24. Luke 3:21-22
25. John 14:16-17
26. John 5:25, etc
27. John 5:18; 21-23
28. John 10:30
29. John 10:33
30. Matthew 9:6
31. John 10:28; 17:2
32. John 14:26
33. John 16:13
34. John 16:8
35. John 3:5
36. John 17:17
37. Matthew 28:19-20
38. 1 Peter 1:2
39. Ephesians 2:16, 18
40. Hebrews 9:14
41. Ephesians 1:13-14
42. 1 Corinthians 13:14
43. Acts 2:32-33
44. 1 Corinthians 12:4-6
45. 2 Corinthians 3:5; 1 Timothy 1:12; Acts 20:28
46. Jude 1; Hebrews 2:12; Romans 15:16
47. 1 Corinthians 12:6,11; Colossians 3:11

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Berkhof, J. A Summary of Christian Doctrine, London, England: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1938.

2. Douglas, J.D. (ed.) New Bible Dictionary, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1962.

3. Finney, C. The Heart of Truth, Minnesota, U.S.A.: Bethany Fellowship, 1976.

4. Hammond, T.C. In Understanding be Men, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968.

5. Pearlman, M. Knowing the Doctrines of the Bible (Part One), Roodepoort, S.A.: Gospel Publishing House, 1937.

6. Renwick, A.M. The Story of the Church, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1958.

7. Vine, W.E. Vine's Expository Dictionary of N.T. Words, Massachusetts, U.S.A.: Hendrickson Publishers, ?

8. Walker, W. A History of the Christian Church (4th ed.), Edinburgh, U.K.: T.and T. Clark Ltd., 1985.

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Posted in: Bible by on January 6, 2011 @ 6:18 pm

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