The Trinity: What Are the Basics?

If you want to learn the basics, this post is for you, in a convenient Q&A format.

Don’t feel frustrated if you have to read this post several times. Tough ideas are difficult in the first, second or third rounds of study—or more rounds! But gradually you will get it.

1.. What does the doctrine of the Trinity actually teach?

It teaches that one God exists in three persons who fully and equally have the same essence or being.

The Father is all of God’s being. The Son also is all of God’s being. And the Holy Spirit is all of God’s being (Grudem, p. 252, emphasis original).

Translation: The Father, Son and Holy Spirit fully and equally have the same essence (being) as one God.

Simpler definition from EDT:

The doctrine of the Trinity teaches that the one true God exists as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (p. 898)

Expanded explanation: What this means is that God exists in the distinct persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but they equally have the same fully divine, undivided essence or being, such as uncreatedness, eternality, simplicity (pure spirit, non-composite or indivisible), immutability (unchangeableness), omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful), goodness, mercy, holiness, will and freedom, and so on.

2.. How do those attributes relate to God?

In God, the attributes of his essence are fully possessed by three persons, making each person fully God.

“For God, essence and existence are identical; his attributes are essential to his existence” (EDT, p. 344).

In contrast, we humans exist and express certain attributes, but to be ignorant of something does make us less human. But in God, his attributes are perfect, never lacking, never accidental, never uneven, and never inconsistent. God would not be God if he were ignorant even to the slightest degree.

Back to God.

Berkoff: “The divine essence is not divided among the three persons, but is wholly with all its perfection in each one of the persons, so that they have numerical unity of essence” (p. 88).

The three persons wholly possess the same essence, the same “Godness.” That is, the Father and Son and Holy Spirit duplicate the same attributes. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are equally wise and merciful and holy; one is not more wise or merciful or holy than the other. In that quotation, “numerical” means only one.

Simplest definition of all: Three persons are contained in One God—Triunity.

3.. Are there Scriptures that show their common attributes?

Yes, please click on What Does the Bible Say?

4.. Are the three persons distinct, and is it important to keep them distinct?

They are separated in this way: The Father is neither the Son nor the Holy Spirit; the Son is neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son.

And it is very important to keep them distinct.

If they never were, then there would be no difference in how the three persons interrelate. If the Son is not subordinate to the Father, then the Father is not eternally “Father,” and the Son is not eternally the “Son” (Grudem p. 251). In other words, without these distinctions their personhoods blur and fuse together (“con-fusion”).

Each person is fully God and has all the attributes of God. The only distinctions between the members of the Trinity are in the ways they relate to each other and to creation. In those relationships they carry out roles that are appropriate to each person. (Grudem, 251, emphasis original)

5.. Is there a formal definition of how the Son is subordinate to the Father in their roles and functions?

The church denies the ontological subordination, who the three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), in their very being. But the church does affirm that the economic subordination; that is the three persons voluntarily subordinate themselves. In redemption, the Father sends the Son into the world, and the Son obey his Father joyfully, and the Spirit draws people to salvation and then sanctifies them.

A. H. Strong:

Father, Son and Holy Spirit, while co-equal in essence and dignity, stand to each other in order of personality, office and operation [activity] …

The subordination of the person of the Son to the person of the Father, or in other words an order of personality, office and operation which permits the Father to be officially first, the Son second and the Spirit third, is perfectly consistent with equality. Priority is not necessarily superiority … We frankly recognize an eternal subordination of Christ to the Father, but we maintain at the same time that this subordination is a subordination of order, office, and operation, not a subordination of essence. (vol. 1, p. 342, last emphasis mine, others his)

Translation:

The Son is subordinate to the Father only in his roles, not in his essence, which he fully has equally with the Father. The Spirit is subordinate to the Father and Son only in his roles, not his essence, which he fully and equally possesses with both.

This is different from the defective teaching called subordinationism, which says the Son and Spirit are subordinate in both their roles and their essence or being.

5.. What is the bottom line teaching, simplified?

Here are three statements:

1.. God is three persons.

2.. Each person if fully God.

3.. There is one God. (Grudem p. 231)

Explanation:

1.. The Scriptures clearly and everywhere teach the existence and roles of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (three persons). You can get to know each of them, and it is wonderful.

2.. The Scripture clearly teaches that they have equal and full deity, even Jesus, who is also fully man.

3.. Yet there is one God, which Scripture also clearly teaches.

But how can a trinitarian formulation fit in his Oneness?

Answer:

They equally are of the exact same essence of one God. But this one God revealed himself throughout Scripture as three distinct persons—Father, Son. and Holy Spirit—who are never fused together.

In understanding the basics, it is crucial keep persons and essence clear. There are three persons who are fully of the one essence of one God.

Once again, the best single word to describe God is Triunity or three in one.

6.. Are there illustrations of the Trinity?

Yes. Click on The Trinity: What Are Some Illustrations?

7.. Would God really exist in a complicated way like this?

This Q&A is repeated in many of these posts in the Trinity series.

God is knowable as far as he has revealed himself through Jesus Christ, the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit who lives in us, and other avenues like the creation. However, God in his pure essence is unknowable. No one has seen God in all of his fullness, except Jesus (John 1:18). We humans down here on earth are limited by our five senses and our finite minds, so how can we figure out and calculate the pure nature of God?

C. S. Lewis alludes to this in his book Mere Christianity, in the chapter “The Invasion” which discusses the Incarnation (God the Son becoming man), which can also apply to the Trinity. He writes:

It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things are not simple. They look simple, but they are not. The table I am sitting at looks simple: but ask a scientist to tell you what it is really made of—all about atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain—and, of course, you find that what we call “seeing a table” lands in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of.

“We can know God truly and sufficiently, but never comprehensively” (EDT, p. 343).

What Do Theologians Say? for their main point that the Trinity is ultimately a mystery.

So how does knowing about the Trinity help me know God better?

There is an entire ten-point post that answers that question, here:

The Trinity: What Does He Mean to Me?

Written by James Malcolm

ARTICLES IN THE TRIUNITY SERIES

The Trinity: What Are the Basics?

The Trinity: What Are Key Terms?

The Trinity: What Are Some Illustrations?

The Trinity: What Does the Old Testament Say?

The Trinity: Three Persons Together in the New Testament

The Trinity: What Do Theologians Say?

The Trinity: What Are His Roles in Creation and Redemption?

The Trinity: What Does ‘Only Begotten Son’ Mean in John 3:16?

The Trinity: What Do Arians and Jehovah’s Witnesses Teach?

The Trinity: What Are Defective Ideas?

The Trinity: What Are Replies to Objections?

The Trinity: Why Would God Seem So Complicated?

The Trinity: What Does He Mean to Me?

SOURCES

Works Cited at Renewal Theology

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Touchstone, orig. 1943 and then 1980 and 1996).

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