The Trinity and Oneness Doctrine
I'm having a dilemma over the Trinity. I accept that God is three in One (Matt. 28:19, 1 John 5:7) but have difficulty accepting that these three components are nothing more than manifestations rather than separate persons. Surely the notion of three persons contradicts verses such as Deut. 6:4 which emphatically call the Lord ONE?
I would appreciate any insights you might give me to justify your position - that God is in fact three PERSONS in One God.
Thanks and God bless
Thank you for writing. The nature of God is one of the most important things we need to rightfully discern. It is a foundational tenet of the Christian faith and as such isn't something we can be unsure about.
Modalism or Sabellianism is the position that God is one person who has taken on three different forms or personas in order to relate to us in different ways at different times. Some very prominent preachers such as T.D. Jakes hold this view, as do people who are Oneness Pentecostal or Oneness Baptist. (T.D. Jakes is part of the Oneness Pentecostal movement, coming from a United Pentecostal background.) However, the position misrepresents the nature of God and has been considered a heresy since about the third century.
Let's first examine the argument for the Trinity and the distinction of personhood. We'll then see if the argument can stand up logically.
The Basis For The Trinity
The basic argument for the Trinity is actually very simple. It can be expressed as:
- There is one God
- There are three persons who are identified as God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
- Therefore there is one God comprised of three persons.
We see then that there is a unity in this threesome. And we use the word trinity(tri-unity) to express this relationship.
The first premise, that there is one God, is well expressed in your citation of Deut. 6:4 which says "Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one!"
The second premise needs to be unpacked further. It is usually not a point of contention that the Father is God. The Bible is replete with verses to support this point (John 17:3; 1 Cor. 8:6). Jesus Christ, though, is also identified as God. John 1:1, John 20:28 and Col. 1:15 are some of the clearest scriptures to this point. However, the Old Testament also demonstrates this, as Isaiah 9:6 and Psalm 110:1 are examples of referring to the coming Messiah as God.
Lastly, the Holy Spirit is referred to as God. The most explicit passage that demonstrates this is Acts 5:3-4, where Peter tells Ananias He has lied to the Holy Spirit and states, "you have not lied to men, but to God." (For a more developed treatment of why the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all considered God, please see Robert Bowman's excellent outline "The Biblical Basis for the Doctrine of the Trinity" at http://www.apologeticsindex.com/t03.html).
Persons within the Godhead are Distinct
So far, we have identified that each of the three members of the Godhead are considered God. The crux of your question, however, deals with the idea that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not distinct persons, but merely different "manifestations" that God reveals. However, with a careful reading of the Bible, we find that this doesn't hold.
In Matthew 4:16-17 we see that the Father speaks out of heaven when Jesus is baptized - a clear distinction. We also read in John 17:1 that Jesus prayed to the Father, and he carefully made a distinction between the two in saying "Father... glorify your Son, that the Son may glorify You." In fact, 1 John 2:1 tells us that Jesus is our Advocate with the Father. It doesn't make sense to equate Jesus and the Father as the same person, as these verses would be rendered nonsense.
John 14:20 again demonstrates the personhood of both the Son and Father when Jesus said "In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you." Since we realize that we are different persons than Jesus, this verse would argue that the Father is likewise distinct from the Son and not the same person.
Also we see the Holy Spirit is not Jesus. In John 14:26 Jesus again makes this explicit where He teaches "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things." Previous to this Jesus identified the Spirit as "another helper" (John 14:6). That word "another" is key. We also saw the Spirit in the Matthew 4 passage above descend on Jesus as a dove.
We know the Spirit is a person, because He has all the attributes of a person and not just "God's holy force" as some are want to believe. You cannot lie to an impersonal force, nor can you grieve one (see Eph 4:30). Thus the Bible is clear in presenting each of the three members of the trinity as separate persons - each distinct - but each fully God.
The Logic of the Trinity
In the argument for the Trinity at the beginning of the letter, the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises. If you accept the premises, you must accept the conclusion. As we have shown here, the premises are valid Biblically, so the conclusion of a trinity is inescapable.
The idea of a Trinity doesn't violate the law of non-contradiction because personhood and essence are two different things - and it is this point where most people get hung up. Essence is a "what" and personhood is a "who". The best illustration I have read is the one by Augustine as cited by Norman Geisler. He notes that "the Bible informs us 'God is Love' (1 John 4:16). Love involves a lover, a beloved, and a spirit of love between the lover and the loved. The Father might be likened to the Lover; the Son the One loved, and the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of love. Yet love does not exist unless these three are united as one."1
Another good example is the one offered by Frank Beckwith. He said "A plant is a being with no center of consciousness. A human is a being with one center of consciousness. God is a being with three centers of consciousness.
I hope this has helped you get a stronger understanding of a crucial belief of Christianity2, and I pray that your faith is strengthened through our time. Please let me know if I've left anything unclear. God bless in your pursuit of Him.
1. - Geisler, Norman "The Trinity" Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics
Baker Books Grand Rapids, MI 1999 p.733
2. - Bowman, Robert "What Difference Does The Doctrine of the Trinity Make?" from
The Biblical Basis for the Doctrine of the Trinity 1994