“I just don’t get it,” was one comment from a teenager during a talk in our youth club some years ago. We were considering an occasion where the Lord Jesus was speaking to His Father in prayer, and she went on to explain the difficulty she was having trying to rationalise why the Lord, as God, would need to pray. “Wasn’t He just speaking to Himself?” she asked.

This question gets right to the heart of one of the key dogmas of the Christian faith – the doctrine of the Trinity; a term derived from the Latin trinitas, meaning ‘threefold’. It describes the fact that there is ‘one holy, almighty God, self-existent and eternally existing in three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, co-eternal in being, co-identical in nature, co-equal in power and glory, without division of nature, essence or being’.(1)

This is difficult for us to grasp because it falls outside our own experience. Every human exists as one being, which is what we are (our physical make up), and one person, which is who we are (our consciousness). However, God exists as one being, or divine essence,(2) which is what He is, but three persons, which are who He is. These persons are three distinct centres of consciousness, referring to themselves as ‘I’ and to others as ‘you’, and operating inter-relationally within His one being.

As difficult as this is to understand, it is a truth that is fundamental to everything we do as Christians – just listen to how often the distinction between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is made in your next church meeting! It also makes Christianity distinct from other faiths such as Judaism and Islam that consider the idea of the Trinity heretical.

The term ‘Trinity’ does not appear in the Bible. However, it is grounded in evidence that can be found throughout both the Old and the New Testament.

Identifying the Trinity in the Old Testament

It must be noted that the Bible is very clear that there is only one God. Deuteronomy 6:4 states, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one”, while in Isaiah 45:5 we read,

“I am the LORD, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God.”

However, English translations of these texts miss key details that point towards a triune God. For example, scholars note that the Hebrew language has three ways of indicating a number in verb and noun forms – singular (indicating one), dual (indicating two) and plural (indicating more than two). In the very first verse of Scripture we read: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.(3) Here, we are introduced to God as Elohim, a plural noun which, when not used to describe the one true God, is often translated as gods.(4)

This same word appears in Deuteronomy 6:4, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Unpacking this, LORD is the reference to God’s personal name, revealed to Moses as I AM(5) (singular), who is our God (Elohim (plural)), but who is also one (echad). The Hebrew word echad can be a translated as the numerical ‘one’, but it is also occasionally translated to describe a single entity made up of more than one part.(6) For example, in Genesis 2:24 we read they shall become one [echad] flesh, suggesting that in their post-marital state Adam and Eve became one entity consisting of two persons.

There are further prophetic indications of a triune God in passages that refer to multiple persons as ‘Lord’, such as The LORD says to my Lord…(7), and also in references to three distinct persons, such as in Isaiah 61:1, where we read about the ‘Spirit’, the ‘LORD’ and ‘me’, with ‘me’ prophetically referring to the Lord Jesus.(8)

More evidence can be found in passages where God uses pronouns that refer to Himself in the plural, such as Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”(9)

These texts also appear in the Tanakh (the Jewish Scriptures) and similar references to God in the plural appear in the Qur’an, the Islamic sacred text. Despite this, both faiths reject the doctrine of the Trinity, offering alternative interpretation in support of this. The most common alternative is that references to God are given using the majestic plural, a stylistic literary device where high-ranking individuals are referred to, either by themselves or by others, in the plural. This device is used in many languages, including in English, where it is referred to as the ‘royal we’.

This lends some plausibility to these arguments and may lead us to approach the doctrine of the Trinity with caution if we were solely reliant on what we see in the Old Testament of the Bible. However, as is often the case, what we catch glimpses of in the Old Testament is brought into clearer view by strong endorsements in the New Testament.

Identifying the Trinity in the New Testament

The New Testament does not replace the Old Testament’s ‘one God’ theology. Paul is clear that “there is no God but one,”(10,11) whereas James states, You believe that God is one; you do well.(12) It does, however, introduce us directly to the three persons who eternally exist as the one God.

For instance, the New Testament introduces us to each person by name. In Matthew 28:19 we read that disciples of the Lord Jesus are to be baptised “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Here we see one name (singular) consisting of three persons (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). Disciples are baptised into the name of all three, indicating that all are equally worthy of our allegiance.

The New Testament also identifies each of these three persons as God. Peter tells us we are elect exiles… according to the foreknowledge of God the Father;(13) John describes the Son as the Word, telling us that the Word was with God, and the Word was God,(14) and Luke tells us that when Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit he had “not lied to man but to God.”(15)

The New Testament also teaches us that this is not one God operating under three different guises at different times. Rather, we see evidence of three persons operating separately and simultaneously. For example, when the Lord Jesus was baptised, the Holy Spirit descended on Him like a dove and the Father declared from heaven “You are my beloved Son.”(16) Additional evidence of these being separate persons can be found in passages where each person refers to the others as ‘I’ and ‘You’,(17) or at times when the Lord Jesus prayed to the Father.(18)

The New Testament also helps us to understand that each person has distinct roles. For example, in ensuring our salvation, we see the Father planning and setting things in motion,(19) the Son obeying the Father’s will(20) to the point of death,(21) and the Holy Spirit revealing the significance of this to men and women.(22,23) We also read of their distinct roles in prayer, in that we pray to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.(24) Despite these distinctions, each role involves the interaction of all three persons as one God, operating in unity.

Revealed through His Son

When trying to comprehend the nature of God we may find ourselves empathising with those who comment, “I just don’t get it.” However, we can be grateful that the God who is beyond our understanding has made Himself accessible to us through the person of His Son. He is the exact imprint of [God’s] nature,(25) in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.(26) As we read about His life and learn from His example we can appreciate that although no one has ever seen God… the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made Him known.(27,28)

References: (1) https://churchesofgod.info/church_of_god_beliefs/what-we-believe/ (2) John 4:24a (3) Gen. 1:1 (4) e.g. Ex. 20:3 (5) Ex. 3:14-15 (6) e.g. Gen. 2:24; Gen. 11:6; Gen. 41:25 (7) Ps. 110:1 (8) Luke 4:16-21 (9) Gen. 1:26. See also Gen. 3:22; Gen. 11:7; Isa. 6:8 (10) 1 Cor. 8:4 (11) 1 Tim. 2:5 (12) Jas. 2:19 (13) 1 Peter 1:1-2. See also John 6:27; 1 Cor 8:6; Phil. 1:2 (14) John 1:1. See also John 1:14; John 10:30; Titus 2:13 (15) Acts 5:4. See also 1 Cor. 2:11 (16) Luke 3:22. See also Heb. 9:14 (17) e.g. John 15:26 (18) e.g. Luke 10:21 (19) Gal. 4:4-5 (20) John 6:37-38 (21) Phil. 2:8 (22) John 15:26 (23) John 16:8 (24) Eph. 2:18 (25) Heb. 1:3 (26) Col. 2:9 (27) John 1:18, NIV (28) Heb. 1:2

Sam Jones, Aberkenfig, Wales

Bible quotations from ESV unless stated otherwise