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4 Questions about the Trinity

This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.

Q: Does the Bible teach that there is only one God?

A: Though the Bible recognizes the worship of many “gods” (1 Cor. 8:5), occasionally acknowledging their (demonic!) existence (Deut. 32:17), the Bible clearly affirms the existence of only one true God, the author and end of all things (Deut. 4:35). The Bible distinguishes the one God not only from all other would-be gods, but also from all creatures by his unique name, YHWH or “the Lord,” and by his unique perfections. The Lord God does not share his glory with another (Isa. 48:11). According to the entire witness of Holy Scripture, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not three gods. Nor are they some confederation of the one God with lesser gods. These three are the one God.

1 Corinthians 8:6 is representative of a broad pattern of biblical teaching in this regard: “For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” This text identifies the Father and Jesus Christ with the one God, appropriating the language of Deuteronomy 6:4. And it places both the Father and Jesus Christ on the divine side of the distinction between the one God and “all things.” We see similar patterns of identification in other biblical texts with respect to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is identified with the one Lord God (Acts 5:3–4; 2 Cor. 3:17–18; Eph. 4:4), the Maker of all things (Gen. 1:2; Ps. 33:6), to whom all praise and devotion are due (Matt. 12:31; 28:19).

The Trinity

Scott R. Swain

In volume 2 of the Short Studies in Systematic Theology series, Scott R. Swain examines the Trinity, presenting its biblical foundations, systematic–theological structure, and practical relevance for the church today.

Q: Does the Bible teach that God is “three in one?”

A: Christians praise the triune God because that is how God presents himself to us in Holy Scripture: as one God in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The prophets and apostles narrate, bless, pray, and sing the name of the triune God.

The Old Testament speaks of the Trinity, albeit in its own mysterious and veiled way, portraying God as a sovereign speech agent who created all things by his Word and Spirit (Gen. 1:1–3; Ps. 33:6, 9), inviting us to overhear conversations between the Lord and his anointed Son (Ps. 2; 110), and prompting us to wonder about the threefold repetition of YHWH’s name in the Aaronic Benediction (Num. 6:22–27) and about the true identity of Wisdom in Proverbs 8.

The veiled riddles of Old Testament Trinitarian revelation are resolved in the New Testament’s announcement of the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Spirit. New Testament revelation of the Trinity includes the heavenly pronouncements overheard at Jesus’s baptism and at the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 3:17; 17:5), the praise and petitions Jesus offers his Father (Matt. 11:25–27; John 17), and the various triadic patterns that occur in baptismal formulas (Matt. 28:19), blessings (Eph. 1:3–14), and benedictions (2 Cor. 13:14). The climax of God’s work of redemption brings with it the climax of God’s triune self-revelation:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal. 4:4–7)

The God who is Father, Son, and Spirit has reached out through the Son and by the Spirit to embrace us as sons and daughters to the end that we may call God our Father in the Spirit of the Son. What we find in later Trinitarian creeds, confessions, and doctrinal summaries are not improvements upon a latent or undeveloped biblical Trinitarianism but, rather, the church’s attempt to fathom the depth of the riches of biblical Trinitarianism for the sake of various liturgical, pedagogical, and polemical ends.

Q: How are the persons of the Trinity distinct?

A: Given the character of God’s oneness, the three persons of the Trinity should not be considered three “parts” of the Trinity that, when added together, “compose” God as a whole. Such a view fails for the simple reason that the one God has no parts. Each divine person is identical with the one God in all his fullness (Col. 1:19; 2:9). As each divine person is equally and identically the one true and living God, the only real distinctions between the persons are their relations to each other.

The way the Bible distinguishes the persons of the Trinity from each other is by means of their relations of origin. The Father eternally begets the Son (“paternity”) and the Son is eternally begotten of the Father (“filiation”). The Father and the Son eternally breathe forth the Spirit (“active spiration,” i.e., breathing forth), and the Spirit is eternally breathed forth by the Father and the Son (“passive spiration,” i.e., being breathed forth). These relations of origin, and the “personal properties” that label them (paternity, filiation, spiration) are the only real distinctions that exist within the one and simple God.

These distinct personal ways of being the one God, while preserving divine oneness, exhibit how the persons of the Trinity are truly distinct from each other: by the manner in which they communicate God’s simple essence to each other—“As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:26). The person of the Father eternally communicates his simple essence to the person of the Son in eternal generation. In similar fashion, just as the Father and the Son have life in themselves, so they have granted the Spirit to have life in himself. The persons of the Father and the Son eternally communicate their simple essence to the Spirit in eternal spiration. The relations of origin thus preserve the perfect oneness of God’s triune life, even as they manifest its perfect fecundity.

The God who is Father, Son, and Spirit has reached out through the Son and by the Spirit to embrace us as sons and daughters to the end that we may call God our Father in the Spirit of the Son.

Q: Can divine actions be divided among different persons of the Trinity?

A: The works of God are not a matter of three friends getting together, each doing his part, to accomplish a common goal. Nor are the works of God the exhibition of an indistinct force. Because God is one, all of God’s external works are indivisible works of the one God—guided by God’s singular divine wisdom, expressive of God’s singular divine goodness, performed by God’s singular divine power, aimed at God’s singular divine glory.

Yet, because God is three, all of God’s actions with respect to creatures manifest a Trinitarian shape, proceeding from the Father through the Son in the Spirit. Because he is the first person of the Trinity, from whom the other persons proceed, the Father initiates God’s indivisible operations. Because he is the second person of the Trinity, begotten of the Father, the Son accomplishes God’s indivisible operations. Because he is the third person of the Trinity, proceeding from the Father and the Son, the Spirit brings God’s indivisible operations to their crowning effects. For example, this Trinitarian shape is evident in the work of redemption: the Father sends the Son to redeem, the Son comes from the Father to accomplish redemption, and the Spirit comes from the Father and the Son to apply redemption (Gal. 4:4–7).

Though all of God’s works with respect to creatures are common to all three persons of the Trinity, certain divine works are often specially associated with certain persons of the Trinity in Scripture. This is not because the Father alone decrees and creates or because the Son alone redeems or because the Spirit alone sanctifies. All of these works are common to all three persons of the Trinity. Certain divine works are associated with certain persons of the Trinity because those works specially manifest the personal properties of the specific persons. In the work of creation, a kind of “fathering” of all creatures, the Father’s personal property of “paternity” is manifest in a special way. In the work of redemption, a work that involves making “sons” out of slaves, the Son’s personal property of “filiation” is manifest in a special way. In the work of sanctification, a work that involves the Father breathing new life into being through his Word, the Spirit’s personal property of “spiration” is manifest in a special way. The application of specific divine actions to specific divine persons is known as “appropriation.”

This article is adapted from The Trinity: An Introduction by Scott R. Swain.



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