What is the Trinity?

Multicoloured triquetra

When Christians refer to the Holy Trinity, they are referring to God Himself. God is one God, but in three distinct Persons*. This is why the Christian God is also known as the triune God – that is three people – tri, like triangle; in one – une, like unite.

The Three Persons:
The three Persons of the Godhead are as follows: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. God the Son is Jesus, who is also known as the Logos, or Word of God; God the Holy Spirit is the Spirit, or the personality of God, the Creative Power of God, and God the Father is the Person who Judaism (and other faiths) might traditionally recognise as God: the head of the Trinity, making final decisions.

One God?
The faith of Christ arose out of Judaism, which is strictly monotheistic – that is, Jewish people believe in one God, who is one Person. (In Greek, Mono -one, theistic – from theos, God). In the Old Testament, it is very clear that God is one. In the Shema, a Hebrew hymn taken from Deuteronomy 6v4, the first line is “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”. As Christians believe in this same God, and as the Old Testament is also part of the sacred and infallible Christian scripture, Christians also believe that there is one God. However, the faith of Christ is not considered a strictly monotheistic faith because of the three Persons of the Trinity.

Or three Gods?
Adherents of strictly monotheistic faiths like Judaism and Islam, sometimes accuse Christians of worshipping three Gods. However it is very central to the Christian faith that while there are three Persons in the Godhead, there is only one God. Christians refer to God in the singular – “He”, rather than “They”.
There are a few analogies which can be useful to try to understand the three-in-one nature of God.
Theologians speak of the three Persons of the Trinity being three distinct Persons, but of the same type. A comparison that I find useful is with my hand. I have 5 distinct fingers, clearly individual, but one hand. All the fingers are made of the same materials: bone, flesh, blood etc – so they are all of the same type. They all work together to achieve things.
There is one clear leader – and that is my thumb.
Or perhaps my hand can be used as an analogy in another way: my hand is made up of three materials: bone, flesh (including veins, sinews etc) and blood. Three distinct aspects to my hand – but one hand. All of the three parts are equally “hand”. Made of the same type in that they are all living tissue. Perhaps then the bone could be considered the leader, just because everything else is built around it?
One analogy found in the Bible is that of marriage. There are (in this case) two distinct parts – husband and wife. They are made of the same type – “human”, but they are distinctly different in that the husband has male anatomy and the wife has female anatomy. They are equally part of the marriage. There is usually one clear leader; biblically that should be the husband. Together they interact and cooperate to form a united whole, one family.

Is the Trinity biblical?
It is quite well known that the word “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible. Because of this, some critics have found it easy to speculate that the concept of the Trinity was a later add-on to Christian thinking.
However, right from the Old Testament there are signs and clues about this special nature of God.
In the very beginning, says the first book of the Bible, Genesis, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters:Genesis 1v2. A little later, in verse 26 (Genesis 1v26): Then God said “Let Us make man in Our image”. Christians believe that the plurals used there indicate the Persons of the Trinity speaking to one another. This is further validated in that even as human beings we are all also “tripartite” – body, soul (or mind, will, decisions) and spirit. So it could be considered that even by making us of three parts, this was one way that God was making us in His own image, and He was indicating that His own nature is in three parts. In the following verse, it reverts to the singular (Genesis 1v27). So God created man in His own image”, then in case we haven’t got the point it repeats it again : “in the image of God He created him” then “male and female He created them”. Notice the play between singulars and plurals which occurs in verse 27 in talking about mankind just as it occurred in verse 26 in talking about God. So He created him in His own image: male and female He created them. The first him, “So He created him” is a singular, referring to humanity or “mankind” as a singular entity, and He also created them as male and female, so these two distinct parts make up the whole that is considered “mankind”; and this is a further way in which we are made in the image of God, with these distinct parts of male and female combining to make one whole “mankind”. All of these validate the idea that God is one God in many parts.

Then in the account of the patriarch Abraham while his tent was pitched in Mamre, the Bible records that the LORD appeared to Him: Genesis 18v1. In the very next verse, it says that Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw three men (Genesis 18v2).
Abraham then refers to these people as one Person “My Lord” (v3). This passage switches between singular and plural verbs when discussing these men v5 : They said; v8 [he (Abraham)] set it before themthey ate, v9 they said; v10: He said; v15: He said. In this passage it does not make any distinction between any of the men, or set one apart as being the main speaker. It does not even say “Then one of the men said”. Because it has told us in verse 1 that it is the LORD that appeared to Abraham, and then goes on to discuss these three men as if they are equally “the LORD”, then I think it makes sense to conclude, as many Christians do, that this is a description of the Trinity, and not, for instance, God accompanied by two angels.

So in conclusion then, the doctrine of the Trinity is often presented as being complicated or difficult, but I think that with some thought it is easy to find analogies which help to understand how it works. Because of the unity symbolised by the Trinity, I also think it is one of the most powerful images of the Christian faith, telling us that love, unity and cooperation are defined not only in the way God relates to us as people, but within His very own nature itself.

*(The plural of “person” in English would usually be “people” but it is convention to talk about the three “Persons” of the Trinity, or Godhead – Godhead is another name given to the Christian Trinity)

Photo of colourful triquetra by Didgeman on Pixabay
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