How can God be one being and yet 3 persons? While not explained explicitly in any passage, the concept of the Trinity is progressively revealed in Scripture. The early church struggled for centuries to understand the doctrine of the Trinity before landing on 3 statements:
- There is one God.
- God eternally exists as 3 persons: Father, Son & Holy Spirit.
- Each person is fully God.
God is One
Many Scriptures teach that there is only one God. For example:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. – Deuteronomy 6:4
that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God; there is no other. – 1Kings 8:60
I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. – Isaiah 45:5-6
Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. – Isaiah 45:21-22
Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. – Romans 3:29-30
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,-1Timothy 2:5
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! – James 2:19
Plurality in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit is sometimes described in a way that suggests he acts as a separate person. For example:
The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. – Genesis 1:2
24I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. – Ezekiel 36:16-28
God sometimes speaks of Himself in the plural. Scholars debate the significance of this fact. This use could be a royal plural as any King might use or it could be a hint of Trinity. (Note the Apostle Paul frequently speaks of himself in the plural.)
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” – Genesis 1:26
Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”– Genesis 3:22
Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!” – Isaiah 6:8
“Come near to Me, listen to this: From the first I have not spoken in secret, From the time it took place, I was there. And now the Lord GOD has sent Me, and His Spirit.” – Isaiah 48:16; [Scholars debate whether God is still speaking here or this is Isaiah speaking.]
There are a few places where someone called Lord/God refers to someone else called Lord /God, which in context typically refers to the Father and the Son.
6Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of uprightness is the scepter of Your kingdom.
7You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You With the oil of joy above Your fellows. – Psalm 45:6-7. [Hebrew 1:8-9 applies these verses to Christ.]
A Psalm of David. The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at My right hand Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.” – Psalm 110:1.
- This verse is quoted or referred to in: Mat 22:44; Mat 26:64; Mark 12:36; Mark 14:62; Mark 16:19; Luke 20:42-43; Luke 22:69; Acts 2:34-35; Heb 1:3; Heb 1:13; Heb 8:1; Heb 10:12-13; Heb 12:2; 1Cor 15:25; 1Peter 3:22; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1;
“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts. – Malachi 3:1
6Then she conceived again and gave birth to a daughter. And the LORD said to him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have compassion on the house of Israel, that I would ever forgive them. 7But I will have compassion on the house of Judah and deliver them by the LORD their God, and will not deliver them by bow, sword, battle, horses or horsemen.” – Hosea 1:6-7
Plurality in the New Testament
At the baptism of Jesus, we see 3 separate persons each doing something different in one moment: Jesus being baptized, the Spirit descending and the Father speaking from heaven.
After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” – Matthew 3:16-17
The New Testament frequently refers to the Father, Son, and Spirit in parallel.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, – Matthew 28:19
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord (κυριος). There are varieties of effects, but the same God (θεος) who works all things in all persons. – 1Corinthians 12:4-6
In the New Testament, the word “Lord” (κυριος) is applied both to Jesus Christ and the Father, while the word “God” (θεος) is generally applied to God, the Father. In the Old Testament, the Greek word “Lord” (κυριος) translates the Hebrew name of God (YHWH).
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. – Ephesians 4:4-6
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. -2Corinthians 13:14
But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. Jude 1:20-21
There are several alternative views to the orthodox view of the Trinity, all of which are considered heresy because they deny at least one of the three statements of the Trinity.
- God eternally exists as 3 persons: Father, Son & Holy Spirit.
- Each person is fully God
- There is one God.
Modalism denies #1 that God eternally exists as 3 persons. Modalism, also called Sabellianism, is the belief that God is one person who has revealed Himself in three forms or modes in contrast to the Trinity where God is one being eternally existing in three persons. According to Modalism, God acts in different modes at different times, in the same way one man could act as father, boss and friend at different times. God is one person who manifested Himself in these three modes at various times. Some modalists hold that God can act in all 3 modes at the same time.
Modalism denies the basic distinctiveness and coexistence of the three persons of the Trinity.
Modalism has been rejected by the majority of Christian churches in favor of Trinitarianism. Modalism was condemned as heresy by Tertullian (c. 213, Tertullian Against Praxeas 1, in Ante Nicene Fathers, vol. 3) and by Dionysius, bishop of Rome (c. 262).
Modalism is probably the most popular alternative to the orthodox view of the Trinity, with some churches teaching it today.
Critics of modalism argue that we see interpersonal interaction between the persons of the Trinity in the New Testament. We see the Son praying to the Father, the Father sending the Spirit; the Son advocating before the Father, etc. Interpersonal interaction suggests separate persons: Luke 3:22; John 1:1-14; John 17:24; 1John 2:1; Hebrew 7:25; John 14:26; Romans 8:27; John 16:7.
Binitiarianism denies #1 and #2. A less popular alternative is to recognize the Father and Son as separate persons, but not the Spirit. In this view the Spirit is seen as the power of God (not a separate person) or sometimes as another name for Jesus. They point to:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. – 2Corinthians 3:17
Critics argue they have taken this verse out of context and point to the passages that describe the Spirit acting as a person teaching, leading, grieving, comforting, etc: John 14:26; John 16:7-8; Romans 8:26; 1Corinthians 2:10; Acts 16:6-7; Acts 8:29; Ephesians 4:30.
Critics also argue, if the Holy Spirit is merely the power of God, some passages become redundant: Luke 14:14; Acts 10:38. Finally, several passages put the Holy Spirit on the same level as the Father and the Son: Matthew 28:19; 1Corinthians 12:4-6; Acts 5:3-4;1Cor 3:16.
Arianism denies #2. Arianism holds that God is the only eternal being and He created the Son and the Spirit.
Named for a priest in the early 4th century AD in Alexandria, Egypt, Arius denied the deity of the Son of God, holding that Jesus was created by God as the first act of creation and that the nature of Christ was anomoios (“unlike”) that of God the Father. Arias believed Jesus is a finite created being with some divine attributes, but he is not eternal and not divine in and of himself. They believe Jesus is inferior to the Father and possesses a different essence and nature.
Semi-Arianism softened the teachings of Arianism by admitting that the Son was “of a similar substance” (homoiousious) as the Father, while rejecting that He was “of the same substance” (homoousious).
Examples of evidence for the deity of Christ: John 1:1-14; John 20:28-31; Titus 2:13; Romans 9:5; Isaiah 9:6; Col 1:19; Col 2:9; Hebrew 1:1-2.
- GotQuestions Index of articles on the Theology of the Trinity
- What does the Bible teach about the Trinity?
- What is the ontological Trinity / immanent Trinity?
- What is the economic Trinity?
- What is the origin of the doctrine of the Trinity?
- Is the Trinity taught in the Old Testament?
- What are some popular illustrations of the Holy Trinity?
- How can there be subordination / hierarchy in the Trinity?
- What is partialism in relation to the Trinity
- What does it mean that the Trinity is God in three Persons?
- How is the doctrine of the Trinity not tritheism?
- What is nontrinitarianism?
- Does the Bible teach the Trinity?
- What is Trinitarianism? Is Trinitarianism biblical?