Defining the Trinity

This is the second in a series of columns on the Trinity.

How do we biblically define a term that never appears in the Bible? As Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and others are quick to point out, the word Trinity is conspicuously absent from the pages of Scripture. Therefore, they argue, to embrace such a term goes against the Bible’s clear teaching.

Not so fast. While it’s true the term Trinity is not found in English Bible translations, that doesn’t mean the doctrine is missing in action. We might point out that phrases such as “the second coming” and “receiving Jesus as Savior” never grace the Bible’s pages either. Even so, Christians look forward to the return of Jesus one day, and we enjoy benefits as adopted children of God, having received Him by faith (John 1:12).

So, when we talk about the Trinity, it’s important to show how Scripture describes God as one eternal being in three persons. This is not as easy as it sounds, for the Trinity in some respects is a mystery – a revelation of God hidden in times past but revealed progressively from Genesis to Revelation.

Embracing mystery

Efforts to make God more understandable by reducing Him to a monolithic being actually diminish His character. Think about it: If God is the creator of everything; if He is sovereign over the universe; if He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere present at the same time; if He exists outside of time and yet operates within it; if He owns the cattle on a thousand hills and yet became poor for our sake in the person of Jesus Christ; if He authors Scripture without dictating it, but by enabling sinful and fallen men to use their unique insights and experiences to pen the very words of God; then, in some respects, it’s foolish to think we can squeeze the Divine Sovereign into skinny jeans.

There are many mysteries in the Bible that Christians embrace as true without fully understanding them. Take divine election – the profound work of God’s sovereignty in salvation so that God does as He pleases and human beings are held fully responsible for their actions.

Or consider the Incarnation – God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Even the kingdom of heaven is a mystery that Jesus sought to explain in nearly two dozen parables.

Complexity fails to diminish any of these great doctrines. In fact, God is magnified as we explore His great work before time, in time, and beyond time.

Even so, some critics of the Trinity attack the doctrine precisely because of its complexity. Muslims, for example, are taught from childhood to reject the Trinity, in part because it’s too complicated. Yet even they must admit that the wonder, vastness, and intricate design of the universe humble even the brightest minds. So, why must we assume the Creator is any simpler, or easier to understand, than the things he made?

A simple definition

So, let’s begin with a simple definition of the Trinity. The word comes from the Latin trinitas, meaning “threeness.” We may rightly say the Trinity is a term used to describe the one true and living God, who exists as three distinct, but inseparable, co-equal, co-eternal persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As The Baptist Faith & Message explains, “The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.

Christian apologist Freddy Davis notes, “The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all part of the single being who is God, but are also three separate centers of consciousness within that single God who are able to interact with one another in a legitimate personal relationship.”

While it’s challenging to fully grasp the doctrine of the Trinity, it may advance our understanding to distinguish between being and person. As the late Nabeel Qureshi, a former Muslim, explains, “Your being is the quality that makes you what you are, but your person is the quality that makes you who you are.” For example, if someone asks who you are, you don’t reply, “I’m a human being.” You respond by sharing your name, which identifies you as a person.

When we say God is triune, then, we are describing the what of God. When we speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are referring to the who of God – three persons, indivisible in substance and nature, but distinct in identity.

Next: Three simple truths about the Trinity