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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Trinity

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TRINITY

1. The doctrine approached . It is sometimes asked why we are not given a definite statement that there are three Persons in the Godhead. One reason for the absence of any such categorical and dogmatic teaching is probably to be found in the fact that the earliest hearers of the gospel were Jews, and that any such pronouncement might (and probably would) have seemed a contradiction of their own great truth of the unity of the Godhead. Consequently, instead of giving an intellectual statement of doctrine, which might have led to theological and philosophic discussion, and ended only in more Intense opposition to Christianity, the Apostles preached Jesus of Nazareth as a personal Redeemer from sin, and urged on every one the acceptance of Him and His claims. Then, in due course, would come the inevitable process of thought and meditation upon this personal experience, and this would in turn lead to the inference that Jesus, from whom, and in whom, these experiences were being enjoyed, must be more than man, must be none other than Divine, ‘for who can forgive sins but God only?’ Through such a personal impression and inference based on experience, a distinction in the Godhead would at once be realized. Then, in the course of their Christian life, and through fuller instruction, would be added the personal knowledge and experience of the Holy Spirit, and once again a similar inference would in due course follow, making another distinction in their thought of the Godhead. The intellectual conception and expression of these distinctions probably concerned only comparatively few of the early believers, but nevertheless all of them had in their lives an experience of definite action and blessing which could only have been from above, and which no difficulty of intellectual correlation or of theological co-ordination with former teachings could invalidate and destroy.

2. The doctrine derived . The doctrine of the Trinity is an expansion of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and emerges out of the personal claim of our Lord. We believe this position can be made good from the NT. We take first the Gospels, and note that our Lord’s method of revealing Himself to His disciples was by means of personal impression and influence. His character, teaching, and claim formed the centre and core of everything, and His one object was, as it were, to stamp Himself on His disciples, knowing that in the light of fuller experience His true nature and relations would become clear to them. We see the culmination of this impression and experience in the confession of the Apostle, ‘My Lord and my God.’ Then, as we turn to the Acts of the Apostles, we find St. Peter preaching to Jews, and emphasizing two associated truths: (1) the Sonship and Messiahship of Jesus, as proved by the Resurrection, and (2) the consequent relation of the hearers to Him as to a Saviour and Master. The emphasis is laid on the personal experience of forgiveness and grace, without any attempt to state our Lord’s position in relation to God. Indeed, the references to Jesus Christ as the ‘Servant [wrongly rendered in AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘Son’] of God’ in Acts 3:13 ; Acts 3:26 ; Acts 4:27 , seem to show that the Christian thought regarding our Lord was still immature, so far as there was any purely Intellectual consideration of it. It is worthy of note that this phrase, which is doubtless the NT counterpart of Isaiah’s teaching on the ‘Servant of the Lord,’ is not found in the NT later than these earlier chapters of the Acts. Yet in the preaching of St. Peter the claim made for Jesus of Nazareth as the Source of healing ( Acts 3:6 ; Acts 3:16 ), the Prince-Leader of Life ( Acts 3:15 ), the Head Stone of the corner ( Acts 4:11 ), and the one and only Way of Salvation ( Acts 4:12 ), was an unmistakable assumption of the position and power of Godhead.

In the same way the doctrine of the Godhead of the Holy Spirit arises directly out of our Lord’s revelation. Once grant a real personal distinction between the Father and the Son, and it is easy to believe it also of the Spirit as revealed by the Son. As long as Christ was present on earth there was no room and no need for the specific work of the Holy Spirit, but as Christ was departing from the world He revealed a doctrine which clearly associated the Holy Spirit with Himself and the Father in a new and unique way ( John 14:16-17 ; John 14:26 ; John 15:26 ; John 16:7-15 ). Arising immediately out of this, and consonant with it, is the place given to the Holy Spirit in the Book of the Acts. From ch. 5, where lying against the Holy Spirit is equivalent to lying against God ( John 5:3-4 ; John 5:9 ), we see throughout the book the essential Deity of the Holy Spirit in the work attributed to Him of superintending and controlling the life of the Apostolic Church ( John 2:4 , John 8:29 , John 10:19 , John 13:2 ; John 13:4 , John 16:6-7 , John 20:25 ).

Then, as we pass to the Epistles, we find references to our Lord Jesus and to the Holy Spirit which imply unmistakably the functions of Godhead. In the opening salutations our Lord is associated with God as the Source of grace and peace (1 Thessalonians 1:1 f., 1 Peter 1:2 ), and in the closing benedictions as the Divine Source of blessing ( Romans 15:30 , 2 Thessalonians 3:16 ; 2 Thessalonians 3:18 ). In the doctrinal statements He is referred to in practical relation to us and to our spiritual life in terms that can be predicated of God only, and in the revelations concerning things to come He is stated to be about to occupy a position which can refer to God only. In like manner, the correlation of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son in matters essentially Divine is clear ( 1 Corinthians 2:4-6 , 2 Corinthians 13:14 , 1 Peter 1:2 ).

In all these assertions and implications of the Godhead of Jesus Christ, it is to be noted very carefully that St. Paul has not the faintest idea of contradicting his Jewish monotheism. Though he and others thus proclaimed the Godhead of Christ, it is of great moment to remember that Christianity was never accused of polytheism. The NT doctrine of God is essentially a form of monotheism, and stands in no relation to polytheism. There can be no doubt that, however and whenever the Trinitarian idea was formulated, it arose in immediateconnexion with the monotheism of Judæa; and the Apostles, Jews though they were, in stating so unmistakably the Godhead of Jesus Christ, are never once conscious of teaching anything inconsistent with their most cherished ideas about the unity of God.

3. The doctrine confirmed . When we have approached the doctrine by means of the personal experience of redemption, we are prepared to give full consideration to the two lines of teaching found in the NT. ( a ) One line of teaching insists on the unity of the Godhead ( 1 Corinthians 8:4 , James 2:19 ); and ( b ) the other line reveals distinctions within the Godhead ( Matthew 3:16-17 ; Matthew 28:19 , 2 Corinthians 13:14 ). We see clearly that (1) the Father is God ( Matthew 11:25 , Romans 15:6 , Ephesians 4:6 ); (2) the Son is God ( John 1:1 ; John 1:18 ; John 20:28 , Acts 20:26 , Romans 9:5 , Hebrews 1:8 , Colossians 2:9 , Philippians 2:6 , 2 Peter 1:1 ); (3) the Holy Spirit is God ( Acts 5:3-4 , 1 Corinthians 2:10-11 , Ephesians 2:22 ); (4) the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct from one another, sending and being sent, honouring and being honoured. The Father honours the Son, the Son honours the Father, and the Holy Spirit honours the Son ( John 15:26 ; John 16:13-14 ; John 17:1 ; John 17:8 ; John 17:18 ; John 17:23 ). (5) Nevertheless, whatever relations of subordination there may be between the Persons in working out redemption, the three are alike regarded as God. The doctrine of the Trinity is the correlation, co-ordination, and synthesis of the teaching of these passages. In the Unity of the Godhead there is a Trinity of Persons working out redemption. God the Father is the Creator and Ruler of man and the Provider of redemption through His love ( John 3:16 ). God the Son is the Redeemer, who became man for the purpose of our redemption. God the Holy Spirit is the ‘Executive of the Godhead,’ who applies to each believing soul the benefits of redemption. The elements of the plan of redemption thus find their root, foundation, and spring in the nature of the Godhead; and the obvious reason why these distinctions which we express by the terms ‘Person’ and ‘Trinity’ were not revealed earlier than NT times is that not until then was redemption accomplished.

4. The doctrine stated . By the Trinity, therefore, we mean the specific and unique Christian idea of the Godhead. The foundation of the Christian idea of the Godhead is that of the One Supreme Almighty Spirit whom we worship, to whom we pray, from whom we receive grace, and whom we serve. But the specific Christian thought of God is that of a Spirit, in the unity of whose being is revealed a distinction of Persons whom we call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the God from whom, through whom, and by whom all things come the Father as the primal Source, the Son as the redemptive Mediator, and the Holy Spirit as the personal Applier of life and grace. The Christian idea of the Trinity may be summed up in the familiar words: ‘The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. The Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. And in this Trinity none is afore or after other: none is greater or less than another, but the whole three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal.’

The term ‘Trinity’ dates from the second century, being found in Greek in Theophilus of Antioch (a.d. 181); and the actual Latin word, from which we derive our English term, in Tertullian (a.d. 200). Its use is sometimes criticised because it is not found in the Bible, but this is no valid objection to it. Like other words. e.g . ‘Incarnation,’ it expresses in technical language the truth about the Godhead which is found implicitly in the NT. The real question is whether it is true, and whether it is fairly expressive of the Bible truth. It is intended to express and safeguard that real and essential unity of the Godhead which is at the root of the distinctions of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The term ‘Person’ is also sometimes objected to. Like all human language, it is liable to be accused of inadequacy and even positive error. It certainly must not be pressed too far, or it will lead to Tritheism. While we use the term to denote distinctions in the Godhead, we do not imply distinctions which amount to separateness, but distinctions which are associated with essential mutual coinherence or inclusiveness. We intend by the term ‘Person’ to express those real distinctions of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which are found amid the oneness of the Godhead, distinctions which are no mere temporary manifestations of Deity, but essential and permanent elements within the Divine unity.

5. The doctrine supported . When all this is granted and so far settled, we may find a second line of teaching to support the foregoing in the revelation of God as Love. Following the suggestion of St. Augustine, most modern theologians have rightly seen in this a safe ground for our belief. It transcends, and perhaps renders unnecessary, all arguments drawn from human and natural analogies of the doctrine. ‘God is love’ means, as some one has well said, ‘God as the Infinite home of all moral emotions, the fullest and most highly differentiated life.’ Love must imply relationships, and, as He is eternally perfect in Himself, He can realize Himself as Love only through relationships within His own Being. We may go so far as to say that this is the only way of obtaining a living thought about God. Belief in Theism postulates a self-existent God, and yet it is impossible to think of a God without relationships. These relationships must be eternal and prior to His temporal relationships to the universe of His own creation. He must have relationships eternally adequate, and worthy, and when once we realize that love must have an object in God as well as in ourselves, we have the germ of that distinction in the Godhead which is theologically known as the Trinity.

6. The doctrine anticipated . At this stage, and only here, we may seek another support for the doctrine. In the light of the facts of the NT we cannot refrain from asking whether there may not have been some adumbrations of it in the OT. As the doctrine arises directly out of the facts of the NT, we do not for an instant look for any full discovery of it in the OT. But if the doctrine be true, we might expect that Christian Jews, at any rate, would seek for some anticipation of it in the OT. We believe we find it there. ( a ) The references to the ‘ Angel of Jehovah ’ prepare the way for the Christian doctrine of a distinction in the Godhead ( Genesis 18:2 ; Genesis 18:16 ; Genesis 17:22 with Genesis 19:1 , Joshua 5:13-15 with Joshua 6:1 , Judges 13:8-21 , Zechariah 13:7 ). ( b ) Allusions to the ‘ Spirit of Jehovah ’ form another line of OT teaching. In Genesis 1:2 the Spirit is an energy only, but in subsequent books an agent ( Isaiah 40:13 ; Isaiah 48:16 ; Isaiah 59:19 ; Isaiah 63:10 f.). ( c ) The personification of Divine Wisdom is also to be observed, for the connexion between the personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:1-36 , the Logos of John 1:1-18 , and the ‘wisdom’ of 1 Corinthians 1:24 can hardly be accidental. ( d ) There are also other hints, such as the triplicity of the Divine Names ( Numbers 6:24-27 , Psalms 29:3-5 , Isaiah 6:3 ), which may not be pressed, but can hardly be overlooked. Hints are all that were to be expected or desired until the fulness of time should have come. The function of Israel was to guard God’s transcendence and omnipresence; it was for Christianity to develop the doctrine of the Godhead into the fulness, depth, and richness that we find in the revelation of the Incarnate Son of God.

7. The doctrine justified . ( a ) From the facts of Scripture . It emerges clearly from the claim of Christ; it is an extension of the doctrine of the Incarnation. If the Incarnation was real, the Trinity is true. ( b ) From the facts of Christian experience . It is a simple fact that Christians of all periods of history claim to have personal direct fellowship with Christ. This claim must be accounted for. It is possible only by predicating Deity of our Lord, for such fellowship would be impossible with one who is not God. ( c ) From the facts of history . Compared with other religions, Christianity makes God a reality in a way in which no other system does. The doctrine of the Trinity has several positive theological and philosophical advantages over the Unitarian conception of God, but especially is this so in reference to the relation of God to the world. There are two conceivable relations of God to the world as transcendent (in Mohammedanism), or as immanent (in Buddhism). The first alone means Deism, the second alone Pantheism. But the Christian idea is of God as at once transcendent and immanent. It is therefore the true protection of a living Theism, which otherwise oscillates uncertainly between these two extremes of Deism and Pantheism, either of which is false to It. It is only in Christianity that the Semitic and Aryan conceptions of God are united, blended, correlated, balanced, and preserved. ( d ) From reason . It is simple truth to say that, if Jesus be not God, Christians are idolaters, for they worship One who is not God. There is no other alternative. But when once the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity is regarded as arising out of Christ’s claim to Godhead as Divine Redeemer, reason soon finds its warrant for the doctrine. The doctrine of the Trinity comes to us by revelation and not by nature, though it is soon seen to have points of contact with thought and reason.

The doctrine ‘started in the concrete, with the baptismal formula … emanating from Jesus Christ. And throughout the history of its dogmatic formulation, we are confronted with this fact. It was regarded as a revelation by the men who shaped its intellectual expression; and it was only in the process … of that expression that its congruity with human psychology came out; that psychology in fact being distinctly developed in the effort to give it utterance.… They did not accommodate Christian religion to their philosophy, but philosophy to their Christian religion.’ This doctrine appealed ‘first to unsophisticated men, far removed from Alexandria or Athens; yet the very words in which it does so, turn out, upon analysis, to involve a view of personality which the world had not attained, but which, once stated, is seen to be profoundly, philosophically true’ (Illingworth, Personality , p. 212f.).

W. H. Griffith Thomas.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Trinity'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/t/trinity.html. 1909.

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Saturday, December 14th, 2019
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