One of the great difficulties of understanding the Trinity is that we have a tendency to want to think of God in completely human terms. We look at ourselves and we think that we are one and therefore since we are made in God’s image, he must also be one. Alas, scripturally, it doesn’t work that way.
The trouble with a unitarian or oneness view of the Trinity is that it attempts to explain God’s personhood within a purely human way of thinking about relationships. We also can, using human-based analogies, attempt to explain God as a Triune being. But our attempt by using analogy cannot convey the fullness of what it means for God to be a Triune being. I’ll touch more on that in a moment. First, we should clarify the existence of the Trinity.
What is the Trinity?
That the Trinity exists, as explained in scripture, there can be no doubt. The Father and the Son are clearly delineated in scripture as being one, yet different persons. The Father spoke from heaven during Jesus’ baptism while the Holy Spirit descended as a dove upon Jesus. This is probably the clearest picture of the Trinity’s existence in the New Testament. Jesus taught his disciples to pray to the Father in Jesus’ name (i.e., authority).
The Holy Spirit is referred to in the scripture as a unique person yet having all of the authority of God that is identical to the Father and the Son (Matthew 28:19, I Corinthians 12:4-6, II Corinthians 13:14). He has all of the attributes of personality, just as the Father and Son do, but He uses them of his own authority. The holy spirit teaches, guides, comforts, convicts, empowers, intercedes to the Father, gives gifts, explores the depths of God, etc.
There are too many scriptures about the existence of the Trinity to explore in this short article. Suffice it to say God is three persons, but he is also a unity. In all cases the Father is shown to be God, the Son is shown to be God, and the Spirit is shown to be God—yet all three play different roles in redemptive history.
Where is the Trinity in the OT?
Some people have remarked that the Trinity is a New Testament invention, and that the Trinity does not appear in the Old Testament at all. To this I would answer that that is not necessarily true. While we can make the case that the full understanding of the relationships within the Trinity may not have been completely revealed, we can also demonstrate that all three members of the Trinity are revealed in the Old Testament. Psalm 45:7 reveals two persons of the Trinity, both in Hebrew being referred to as God (Elohim): “Therefore God, your God has anointed you…” The Holy Spirit is the first person of the Trinity to actually be revealed in scripture. He was revealed at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 1:2, “The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The Old Testament reveals, partially, that there were members of the Trinity referred to as Father and Son. “I will be his father and he will be my son…” (I Chronicles 17:13). Though the references to Father, Son, and Spirit are scant in the Old Testament because of the reality of progressive revelation, that does not discount the fact that they are there.
Why is it Hard to Understand the Trinity?
In my observation it seems that it is difficult for many people to grasp just what the Trinity is, because there is nothing truly analogous to the fullness of the Trinity in our human experience—our understanding is only partial. For instance, when we refer to God as “Father,” we do so knowing what a father is. Regardless of whether we had good or bad fathers, the general concept of a father helps us to understand the role of God the Father. Similarly, when we think of Jesus as God the Son we can also understand that relationship. We know what a son is and what a son’s role in a family is. But when we come to the Holy Spirit we get stuck. The Holy Spirit is not a mother and His role and behaviors are not analogous to a mother. Nor is he a son or a father. The scripture says that he comes forth from both the Father and the Son (John 15:26, 16:28). He is different. He has all of the attributes of the Father and the Son (except that he does not have a permanent physical body, like Jesus does), but he is different from the two. Our analogies to describe Him break down because we have no relationship on earth that is analogous to what and whom the Holy Spirit is. His role is unique among all relationships.
Because of this, I think it is difficult for many Christians to fully grasp the Trinity. That does not mean it is impossible, it simply means that it can be difficult. But that difficulty does not refute the reality that the Holy Spirit is a person, part of the Trinity, equal to its members and yet different in role and function from the Father and the Son.
Why the Trinity is Important?
First, understanding the Trinity gives comfort and security to the believer knowing that God does not “act alone” in anything. Rather, all members of the Trinity are in constant and unbroken fellowship with one another, doing that which pleases each member and reveals more of Himself to the believer.
Second, without understanding the Trinity our knowledge of God would be less complete than it is now. One of the goals of our Christian experience is to “know God” (Philippians 3:8). It is not that we have full understanding now, rather our understanding of God increases when we begin to see him for who he really is. Just as the revelation of God’s person was progressive in the Old Testament, so too our learning about him now, in these New Testament times, is also progressing. The more we understand about God’s person and character, the deeper our fellowship with him. That’s a great place to be!
Third, without the Holy Spirit we would be powerless to live the Christian life. That would be a terrible place to be! He is our seal of faith. He is the one who empowers us to live as both the law and Christ taught. Without him we could not experience the fullness of faith in God. He is essential to our understanding and experience of God. He illuminates our relationship with Jesus, as Jesus promised.
We should, however, keep in mind this caution: It is not necessary to have a full understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity in order to be a believer in Jesus (Acts 19:2). This might cause your red flag to go up, but hear me out. When a person comes to Christ, more likely than not, he does not know anything about “the Trinity.” This was true in my experience and probably of every believer I know. What the Trinity is, is an important doctrine and one that helps us understand and experience God, it is not a necessary doctrine for the point of salvation, but it is an important doctrine for Christian growth.