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How can we explain the Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit based on Scripture?

10 August 2023

Many Christians imagine God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and speak of God's Trinity. But that term doesn't appear anywhere in the Bible. How can we explain the Holy Trinity based on Scripture?

Riemer Roukema
Professor of Early Christianity

"Protestant" question

First off, the Trinity question seems like a really "Protestant" question, because Protestants usually want to orient themselves on the Bible for their faith. They want to explain the issues of faith, so they aim to understand. The expression "Trinity" seems to be very illogical and Read this passagedifficult to explain. Indeed, how can something be one and three at the same time? How did the Christians come to designate God this way?

Is Jesus God as well?

The ministry of Jesus of Nazareth is the basis of the belief in God's threefoldness. Many people have recognised God in Jesus. They believed he was sent to the people by God and that he represented God. He was, so to speak, God in person. He was also referred to as "Son of God".

In John 10:33, Jesus is accused of impersonating God. That charge was not justified, for Jesus did not designate himself to be God. However, early Christians were convinced that Jesus had been taken up to heaven with God after his death on the cross. There he had received the name of God. Such is the case in Paul's letter to Philippians 2:9-11.

But if God had come into the world in Jesus, did people believe God was at that time only present in him? Did this mean – so to speak – that heaven was temporarily empty because God had descended to Earth in the person of Jesus? No, the first Christians did not see it that way. God ("the Father") was and remained God of the whole world. They did believe that God was especially present in Jesus. So Jesus was much more than a gifted person.

Praying to Jesus

That Jesus was much more than a unique individual for the first Christians can also be seen in their prayers. After Jesus' earthly life, their prayers called not only on God the Father, but also on Jesus Christ (see, for example, Acts 7:59 or 1 Corinthians 1:2). That they prayed to Jesus indicates that they also regarded him as divine. It may seem that Christians believed in two different gods, but they did not experience it that way. They saw God the Father and his Son Jesus as a unit. So they prayed to God the Father “in the name of Jesus” (see John 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:26). That means they addressed God through Jesus. And that they didn't want to separate God and Jesus.

The Spirit of God

But... we aren't there yet. During his ministry, Jesus was inspired by God's Spirit, as we read in the four Gospels (for example, Luke 3:21-22; 4:14, 18). Thanks to God's Spirit, he was able to deliver people from the demons that afflicted them (Matthew 12:28).

God's Spirit is also mentioned in the Old Testament (see Genesis 1:2; Psalm 51:11; 104:30; Isaiah 42:1; also translated as "wind" or "breath"). That Spirit is seen there as God's breath, with which he animated people and all creation.

Christians believed that God's Spirit had been especially present in Jesus, but also that they themselves had received this Spirit. They experienced that God's Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of Jesus, dwelt in them. That was what Jesus had announced, and that was how it had been experienced since Pentecost (Matthew 3:11; 10:20; John 14:16-17; 15:26; 16:7; Acts 2; Romans 8:1-11). In addition to Jesus, this Spirit was yet another form of God.

That Spirit was in a sense God Himself, but in the Bible it is often distinguished from God "the Father". Paul even writes that this Spirit prays to God on behalf of believers (Romans 8:26-27). In other places, Paul mentions God, Christ and the Spirit in close succession. In listing some gifts of the Spirit, he varies in naming the Spirit, the Lord (Jesus Christ) and God (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). One of his blessings is, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:13). Such scriptures show that he aligned God, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit. In Paul's letters, there is no teaching of God's threefoldness, but there is the idea that God had made himself known in those three forms. That's why in such texts, he mentions God, the Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit in the same breath.

No stagnant God

Paul was not alone in living with and believing in that threefold scheme. The way in which Jesus' parting words are formulated in the Gospel of John also shows this. God, the Spirit, and Jesus are regularly associated there (for example, John 14:16-17; 14:26; 15:26; 16:12-15).

This threefold scheme is most clearly expressed at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. After his resurrection, Jesus tells his followers to make disciples of all nations. In doing so, they are to baptise them “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It is hard for many to imagine that the risen Jesus literally said that. But in any case, we may assume that in the church for which Matthew wrote, baptism was administered this way: in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The whole church has adopted those baptismal words. With those words, a believer was incorporated into the one God who had revealed himself as the heavenly Father, and in his Son Jesus Christ, and in the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Like other Biblical texts, this baptismal formula does not contain a detailed teaching of God's threefoldness, either. But those words do testify to a realisation that has accompanied the church from the beginning: the one God is not stagnant, but dynamic and mobile. He oversees the whole world and all of history, but in the person of Jesus he also came to visit people, to point out God's Kingdom to them and to call on them to direct their lives toward it. With his Spirit, he has not only inspired Jesus, but he wants to live in all people who set their sights on him.

Yet one God

Considering what we've discussed, it isn't so strange that the early church already started to speak about God's threefoldness (trias). Still, Christians were convinced that they did not believe in three separate gods. For them, it was obviously about one God, who made himself known in different ways. "God is one" is stated in, for example, Deuteronomy 6:4, Mark 12:30 and 1 Corinthians 8:4-6. Hence the terms "three-in-one" and "triune" that are often used next to the term "Trinity."

It isn't simple, but it is certainly possible to explain the "Trinity" on the basis of Bible texts. But does that mean we now understand everything? No. For God is ultimately beyond our thinking and understanding. The human words we use for God remain flawed. That realisation, fortunately, Read this passageis also found in the Bible.