Billy Graham, in his book The Holy Spirit, recounts a story of a seminary student who asked a question about the inferiority of the Holy Spirit since it comes third. As we refer to the Holy Spirit, we usually say Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with the Spirit in the third position. Graham explains that the third position does not imply inequality, but does imply functionality. The Father came first, followed by the Son who was God incarnate, died and rose again. Following the Son is the Spirit who does His work in the age of the Spirit, even unto today.
But this raises another question; why do we say Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Why is this grouping called the Trinity? How did this grouping come about?
Almost all Christians believe in the Trinity. For us this means that God exists in three Persons and these three are one God, co-equal, co-eternal, having precisely the same nature and attributes. Now all Christians believe this but most Christians struggle to understand it and explain it. Many throw up their hands and say things like “it is a mystery!” or “it is a paradox!”
Even as the Bible unfolds the revelation of God progressively, there are indications of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Genesis. However, Graham admits that the New Testament references to the Spirit are much more numerous. But where does Trinity come from?
According to Wikipedia, the first recorded use of Trinity was by Theophilus of Antioch in the year 170. Tertullian, a Latin theologian who wrote in the 3rd Century is credited with being the first to use the Latin words “Trinity” to explain the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” This means that the idea of the Trinity came about after the Bible was written.
Scripture in the New Testament is very close to the idea of the Three in One. One can find instances like the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:14 where he says “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” Graham states “His benediction clearly indicates the Holy Spirit is one with the Father and one with the Son in the Godhead” even though the words “Trinity” are not used.
The word Trinity is just not in the Bible.
Why did it come about? Graham says the most confusing part of the subject of the Trinity is the claim that Christianity is monotheistic. Polytheism was the norm in many cultures when Christianity came about; the Romans worshipped twelve Gods for example. Christians did not want to be associated with pagan concepts, so they emphasized one God [monotheism]. First Corinthians 8:4 says “There is no God but one” and 1 Timothy 2:5 explicitly says “there is one God.” The thorny problem is the incarnation of God in Jesus and the Holy Spirit are there also and they are on par with God.
Sounds like polytheism…
Until Christian doctrinal leaders develop the doctrine of the Trinity.
Graham uses a story from Dr. David McKenna to illustrate the practical problem of the Trinity. McKenna had one of those “stump the father” episodes with his small son. His boy said “Is God the Father?” McKenna said yes. “Is Jesus Christ God?” McKenna said yes. “Is the Holy Spirit God?” Another yes, and then the child said “How can Jesus be His own Father?”
McKenna used the car they were sitting in to explain how this could be. I sure can relate since I am not mechanical at all. He said under the hood is one battery [God] and that battery can turn on the lights, blow the horn and start the car. How this happens is a mystery but it happens. I am sure the boy accepted the mystery.
God exists in three Persons and these three are one God, co-equal, co-eternal. Father is the source of all blessing, the Son is the channel of all blessing, and the Holy Spirit is at work in us making God alive and operative in our lives.
Did this concept come about in a very pragmatic way to avoid polytheistic theology? Is it revealed in the Bible and Church leaders were inspired by Scripture to explain the Triune God using the term Trinity?
Does it really matter?
Pastor Don Hemingway writes “The Trinity is a doctrine that all Christians believe but no one really understands….If you try to explain the Trinity, you will lose your mind. But if you deny it, you will lose your soul.”
Maybe the best attitude to have is represented by the Massachusetts’s Senator Daniel Webster. Webster who was a fervent Christian was asked “How can a man of your intellect believe in the Trinity?” He replied “I do not pretend fully to understand the arithmetic of Heaven now.”
Emphasis should go on the word now…