How I came to understand the Trinity
How do we worship a three-in-one God? That doesn’t even make sense! How can Jesus be king when He’s clearly subject to the Father? And what does the Holy Spirit look like? Whom do we worship in heaven? Do we have to bow three times and turn each time to three different thrones?”
The questions came fast and hard. My friend was relentless in throwing them at me during dinner at our youth meeting. Without so much as giving me an opportunity to “defend” myself, he ended the conversation quite abruptly by saying: “Yong Shin, what we believe as a church is wrong. There’s no such thing as a Trinity. There can’t be, because it doesn’t make sense.”
My knee-jerk response was to denounce him as a heretic, even though I (in hindsight wisely) held back any immediate response. As we concluded that fateful evening’s dinner, my friend handed me a small booklet outlining how Christ is “begotten” and that He’s really not God, and that the Holy Spirit cannot be a person. Long after he left I kept wondering: What is the nature of the Trinity? Is there even such a thing as a triune God? Could our church really be wrong?
“There is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a unity of three co-eternal Persons,” I read in the second of our 28 Fundamental Beliefs.1
On the outset, especially to a nonbeliever, that doesn’t make sense. How can something be three and one at the same time? The arguments against a triune God are effectively based upon this very line of thinking. God is one God, and thus cannot be three. And if one is to concede that there were somehow three, then there has to be some sort of an established hierarchy within this unity in order to make this trio work.
If I could figure God out, He wouldn’t really be God anymore, would He?
Henceforth, the core anti-Trinitarian argument, then, is that God the Father is God above all, that Christ isn’t equal, and that the Holy Spirit is merely a manifestation of the Father. Passages such as Proverbs 8 are used to reduce the deity of Christ, while the “impersonal” characteristics of the Holy Spirit are “clearly” reflected in such passages as Acts 10:45 (referred to as a “gift”), John 7:37-39 (you can “drink” of it), and 2 Timothy 1:6 (it can be “[stirred] up” within us [KJV]). I’ve heard these arguments many times over, and they almost always end with Zechariah 4:6. The Holy Spirit, anti-Trinitarians argue, is merely the Spirit of God, and not God Himself.
There is, however, also plenty of good evidence in Scripture that points to the contrary. While the words “Trinity” or “triunity” cannot be found in Scripture,2 the allusion to a triune God is clearly present throughout. Right from the beginning of Creation Moses tells us, in Genesis 1:26, that it was ’Elohim (the noun used almost exclusively in the plural form in speaking of God) who said: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”3 As we journey through the Word, we can clearly see the Trinitarian motif and relationship in passages such as Matthew 3:16, 17 (the baptism of Jesus), Matthew 28:19, 20 (the Great Commission), and John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:13-15 (Jesus says that “another advocate” is sent from the Father), among others. There are also plenty of passages that refer to the Holy Spirit’s characteristics as a person; take, for example, 1 Corinthians 2:11 (He “knows”), Romans 8:27 (He has a mind), and Acts 5:3, 4 (He can be lied to).
How then are we to reconcile these two opposing sides?
The verses above are only the tip of the iceberg; but my own journey has convinced me that a Trinitarian view is indeed the one that “makes the most sense.” The church’s Trinitarian view is certainly a lot more compelling from a scriptural perspective, for the evidence pointing to it is much more abundant.4 Yet it would be quite imprudent to merely dismiss the challenges and questions that our anti-Trinitarian brothers and sisters have posed, for the question still remains: If there is indeed such a thing as the Trinity, what then is the true nature of this triune Godhead?
The answer to this is far from simple. Take, for example, the Apostolic and Nicene creeds, established in the fourth century A.D. in direct response to Arius, a Christian leader living in Alexandria, Egypt, who taught that the Son had not always existed.5 While the creeds make a simple affirmation of faith in the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit as a member of the Trinity,6 a deeper study into the discussion of the matter reveals many technicalities and theological terminologies, which may leave a seeker even more confused than before. There have been many attempts to conceptualize the biblical teaching regarding the Godhead, though many of them are heavily influenced by Neoplatonism as taught by Justin Martyr and Origen.7
While I was studying at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, one of my professors suggested in a class the idea of “unity in diversity” as it pertains to the relationship of the Godhead. This concept is likened somewhat (though very imperfectly, he admitted) to the idea of “humanity.” We are all different humans, yet there is but one humanity. In this regard, God as one and God as three can both be true. An interesting proposal, no doubt, but while I see the logic and value of the argument, it seems that the explanation still leaves just as many questions as before.
The Real Question
Some time ago some friends and I had an intriguing discussion about the nature of male-female relationships. One of my friends (a guy, of course) quipped, “Women aren’t meant to be understood; they are meant to be loved!” That of course drew both approval and disdain from the women in the group. As I reflected on that statement later, however, it suddenly hit me. If I don’t even truly understand human beings, how can I possibly hope to understand God?
Are we, in our finite, mortal minds and bodies, capable of understanding the Trinity at all?
And therein lies the real question that needs to be asked: Are we, in our finite, mortal minds and bodies, capable of understanding the Trinity at all? Our anti-Trinitarian friends have come to demand substantial proof to explain the nature of the Trinity before they’ll believe, but the truth of the matter is that no adequate explanation or answer can be provided. This may sound like a cop-out, but consider this simple illustration: How do you explain the color green to someone who was born blind? What words would you use? What sounds would you make?
I believe there’s a reason for such texts as Isaiah 40:28 and Deuteronomy 29:29 to exist in our Bible, because, fact is, there are many things that we will never understand. Somehow I have come to recognize that I will never fully grasp the nature of the Trinity. If I could figure God out, He wouldn’t really be God anymore, would He? After all, Scripture does not say that my salvation is incumbent upon being able to understand and explain the nature of the Trinity, so why invest time and effort in trying to “adequately” explain the unexplainable? There are plenty of texts that point to a Trinitarian God, but we need to recognize that this is where the limit of our understanding is reached. It doesn’t need to “fully make sense.” Scripture says that God is three, and God is also one—and that should settle it.
Ellen White sums it up best: “The revelation of Himself that God has given in His Word is for our study. This we may seek to understand. But beyond this we are not to penetrate. The highest intellect may tax itself until it is wearied out in conjectures regarding the nature of God, but the effort will be fruitless. This problem has not been given us to solve. No human mind can comprehend God. . . . Here silence is eloquence. The Omniscient One is above discussion.”8
What Really Counts
By now you have realized that the subhead to this article is, of course, somewhat inexact and disingenuous. Because in reality, there is really no way of providing a satisfactory way of explaining or understanding the nature of the Trinity. The only thing I have come to truly understand about the nature of the Trinity is that it can’t be fully understood. Indeed, to understand and to “explain” God is really to make Him “human,” which, ultimately, will result only in futility.
Instead of puzzling about the exact nature of the Trinity, it may be more important (and rewarding) to spend more time learning to love Him and to experience the amazing and wonderful care that He shows for us as created beings. We need to learn to trust Him more, to truly know that He is able to provide all things for us, and that all things do indeed work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. We are called to learn to walk with Him ever more closely, to have Him take us by the hand as we go through the exuberance and excitement of life’s mountaintop experiences as well as through the apathy and despondency of the valleys where all hope seems absent.
But most important, we are challenged to be ready for His second coming, to learn to have that personal relationship with Him so that we can indeed recognize our Creator and Father, our Savior and friend, our guide and comforter, and yes, our God, when He comes to take us home.
- See the online statement at www.adventist.org/en/beliefs/god/trinity/.
- Roger Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2002), p. 133.
- The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1953), vol. 1, p. 171.
- Many Seventh-day Adventist authors have made a biblically convincing Trinitarian case. See, for example, Fernando Canale, “Doctrine of God,” in Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, ed. Raoul Dederen(Hagers-town, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000), pp. 105-159; Jerry Moon, “The Adventist Trinity Debate, Part 1: Historical Overview,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 41 (Spring 2003): 113-129; and Woodrow Whidden, Jerry Moon, and John Reeve, The Trinity: Understanding God’s Love, His Plan of Salvation, and Christian Relationships (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2002).
- C. F. Pfeiffer, The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, electronic ed. (Chicago: Moody).
- Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, p. 143.
- Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 429.