Three in One: The Foundational Paradox of Christianity

This is a chapter from a book I am writing. I am placing it here to get some feedback on the clarity of the writing style and the subject.


The debate over the Trinity and what exactly “Trinity” meant consumed the first few centuries of Christianity; so much so that it was the focal point for many writings as well as many councils. The Council of Nicaea and later the Council of Constantinople were called primarily concerning Trinitarian issues (mostly relating to the Incarnation of the Word). It’s hard to believe that the Trinity was such a controversial issue, especially since belief in the Trinity has gone by the wayside in the modern world. In fact, proper teaching on the Trinity has devolved so much in Western Christianity that even those who claim to be Trinitarian often don’t know what they mean by “Trinity.” The Trinity is often misunderstood, sometimes willfully rejected, other times rejected out of ignorance, and even when understood, the Trinity is viewed as a peripheral doctrine, something on the side that ultimately doesn’t matter.

Sadly, the most misunderstood doctrine in Christianity is also the foundational doctrine of the Christian faith. I purposefully leave out the letter “a” when saying the Trinity is a foundational doctrine. In Christianity, the Trinity functions as the foundation; without the Trinity, there is no Christianity. All other doctrines rest upon the precepts of the Trinity. Want to know why Jesus came to die for us? The ultimate reason rests in the Trinity. Want to know why we should have fellowship with each other? Look to the Trinity. Want to know how the Church should function in society? The Trinity is our example. Every aspect of Christian doctrine is touched by the Trinity and if a doctrine isn’t founded in the Trinity or can’t be traced back to Trinitarian thinking then the doctrine is false or so highly unimportant that it’s more opinion than doctrine.

But if the Trinity is so important, why are we so ignorant of what the Trinity is? As indicated earlier, the Trinity gives us a window into the nature of God. Though ultimately mysterious, the Trinity does give us an idea of God’s nature. Being a window, however, is often why the Trinity is neglected, rejected, and misunderstood. Put simply, the Trinity is confusing. To a society that relies on facts and figures and wants everything explained, we don’t like the Trinity because ultimately there is no explanation. We appreciate illusionists because while their tricks might baffle our minds, we know that ultimately someone has an explanation for the trick. Somewhere down the line the trick can be explained. In fact, if we were to study the illusion and put effort into it, we could figure out how the illusion was performed. But with the Trinity, no amount of study or knowledge will ever get us closer to understanding the Trinity. For a rationalistic society, such a mystery is ultimately unsavory and therefore rejected or at least put on the backburner of theology.

Being that the Trinity partially reveals God’s nature, we should not be surprised that the Trinity is beyond our grasp and ultimately is mysterious. Some might argue that since God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33) and the Trinity is confusing, Trinitarian thinking does not come from God. But there is little warrant to such thinking. Aside from the fact that Paul was writing about having order in a church service so there would be no confusion in the teachings, such a passage hardly applies to the mystery of God. As we discovered in the last chapter, God is ultimately a mystery to us and infinitely beyond us. Since God is beyond us, it only makes sense that the Trinity would be ‘confusing.’ We will never fully understand the Trinity and that should be okay with us; the fact that the Trinity is non-contradictory, but still beyond our rational, would indicate that it is not of human origin, but instead originates from God.

Three in One

Even if we accept that the Trinity originates from God, this leaves us pondering exactly how God can be Three in One. The other problem modern Christians have with the Trinity is that we’re really not well read on philosophy and all of the terms to describe the Trinity (in any technical sense) are philosophical. Thus, while I can say, “The Trinity is three Persons within one essence” and most philosophers will understand what is being said, the average person won’t have a clue, and that’s okay. Back when the terms were developed everyone spoke Greek, so what are now technical terms used to be everyday language. Since we don’t have the luxury of speaking Greek like the ancient Church did, we should unpack what the terms “essence” and “person” mean.

“Essence” is similar to the word “nature” and sometimes can be used interchangeably (depending on which philosopher you read). However, sometimes philosophers divide nature and essence, making nature more universal and essence more personal. An example would be that while Jim has a human nature, the essence of Jim is unique to Jim alone. That is, what makes Jim, Jim is his essence. And that is what essence seeks to explain; whatever makes an individual thing that individual thing is the essence of that thing. What makes Mary different from Sarah? Even though both are by nature humans, by essence they are different because each holds a different essence.

When applied to God it is appropriate to say that all three Persons in the Trinity have the nature of God and the essence of God; whatever makes God who He is (His essence) is true for all three Persons.[1] Of course, the ultimate problem we run into in talking about the “essence” of God is that God is really above an essence. To say that God has a nature or that God has an essence is to limit Him or show that He is contained by something, which would mean He’s not God. However, since we don’t know God as He knows Himself, we’re stuck using human terms to describe Him the best we can. Essentially what we’re saying when we speak of God’s essence in relation to the Trinity is that whatever is true of God is true of each member of the Trinity. When we speak about the eternity of God the eternity is equally applicable to the Father, Son, and Spirit. Whatever can be said of God can also be said of the three Persons.

The unity in nature shows that God is truly one; an essence is oneness. It’s unity in all aspects of the being. Thus, our God is truly one. We can refer to Him in a singular fashion because God operates as one being, because He is one being. But He is known and exists in three Persons.

Each Person functions as a person, showing a will, a personality, intelligence, a purposeful movement, and all other indicators of personhood. The Father has a will as is indicated throughout all of Scripture. We see Him interacting with creation and guiding creation; Genesis 1 is one of the more absolute passages that points to the will of the Father. He has an end in mind (creation) and then moves things toward that end, which is indicative of a will. Luke 22:4-42 shows that the Son also has a will, one where He desired one thing, but willingly submitted to the Father’s will. The other indicator of personhood is the ability to be grieved or to react to actions, such as the Holy Spirit does (Acts 5:3-4). In reacting to sinful actions and being grieved, the Holy Spirit shows Himself to be a person and not a force or energy; I can’t grieve light, I can’t grieve heat, and there is no other energy or force that can be grieved. Only a person can be grieved.

Yet the Trinity remains a mystery because all three Persons equally partake in the Divine essence (that is, all three are God, and God is singular, yet plural). While we can describe the Trinity in this way, we must keep in mind that our language is highly inadequate and, more importantly, we cannot understand how the Trinity functions. How is it that the Son is united to the Father and Spirit in essence, but distinct in His personage? We don’t know and cannot know, because to know would require us to have a deeper understanding of God’s nature and to have a better language to express this nature. As it is, no human language can accurately describe God because God is beyond description, hence the reason even the Trinity (the only revealed part of God’s nature) remains shrouded in mystery.

What is important is that we don’t take the mystery of the Trinity as a license to describe the Trinity as we will. Christianity is not polytheistic, recognizing three gods and placing emphasis on one above the other. Rather, we worship one God who is distinct in three Persons and all three are equally worthy of our praise and worship. The great Cappadocian theologian St. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote that we should not prefer one Person over the other:

“Remembering these, don’t you belittle any within the Godhead, putting this one above, this one below. One is the nature, immeasurable, uncreated, a-temporal, excellent, free, and co-venerable, one God in three refulgencies, making the world go round.”[2]

We should never place one member of the Godhead above the other, saying that either is more or less than any other member. While there are differences in the Persons – the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit proceeds – in God’s essence all three Persons are equal. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all equal in eternality, power, knowledge, and all other attributes.

Admittedly, all of this can be confusing. I’m a trained philosopher who understands the language of essence, substance, nature, etc. and even I struggle with understanding the Trinity. We must always remember, however, that studying the Trinity is a humbling activity because the more we learn, the more we realize we know little to nothing. But an easier way of considering the Trinity is to consider that Christ told us to baptize disciples in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Notice that “name” is singular and not plural. He does not say in the names of the Three, but rather the name of the Three. Again, while we may not understand how God can be one yet three, we can trust that this is so simply because of Christ’s refusal to use the plural form of “name.” If I were to say we should follow General Washington, General Adams, and General Grant, I wouldn’t say, “Follow the name of Washington, Adams, and Grant.” Rather, I’d say “names.”

Why the Trinity?

Of course, pointing to one passage of Scripture to justify the Trinity is hardly enough to learn about the Trinity. Why would God reveal Himself as Trinitarian and why is it important that we recognize God as Trinity? Why we should recognize God as Trinity will become clearer as this book progresses, but we should see that God’s revelation of Himself as Trinity has been a slow process, but a process nonetheless.

One way in which we see the Trinity within Scripture is the teaching on how no one has ever seen God (John 1:18, Exodus 33:20). However, Moses apparently spoke to God face to face (Numbers 12:6-8, 14:14). How is it possible that no man has seen God, yet Moses apparently did see God? Such a contradiction is only resolved in the paradox of the Trinity, where we can say that no one has seen the Father, but others have seen the Son. In fact, Jesus says just that very thing and that by seeing the Son we have seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus didn’t come into existence at the Incarnation, but has existed eternally; thus in the instances in the Old Testament where people see God, they are actually seeing Jesus (John 8:58-59). Without the Trinity we are at a loss as to how God was seen, but says that He cannot be seen.

The Gospel of John is much more emphatic in its explanation of God as Trinitarian. John states that “…the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1-2). John, in writing such a passage, is saying that the Word was both with God (indicating distinction) and was God (indicating unity). While we may not understand the how, we can embrace the fact that it is so; God is presented within Scriptures as being Three, yet One.

The Trinity and Love

Some might take issue with the above passages and argue that God is not Trinitarian and there are no Persons, but to do so is to contradict the idea that God is love. The Trinity is actually what proves that God is love and that only the Christian God is capable of perfect love. This might seem like a bold claim, but when presented with the facts of God and love it makes perfect sense.

We know from 1 John 4:8 that God is love and John 15:13 informs us that perfect love (the highest form of love) is sacrificial. It requires the lover to sacrifice for the one he loves. That might be in giving one’s life or in sharing things of great value, but in some way the lover sacrifices for the one loved. If God’s love is perfect that means He sacrifices more than anyone, which makes sense in light of creation. After all, He created us, He sent His Son for us, and He watches out for us though He is under no obligation to do so. But what about before creation?

If God is truly singular and not Trinitarian, who did God love before creation? We could say that He loved potential beings that would come into existence, but that’s not the same as loving actual beings. I love my future children right now, but I can’t really make sacrifices for them that cater to who they are because they don’t exist yet. So while God could loved creation before He created, His love would have increased once we were created (which would mean He isn’t perfect, because His love was imperfect, or incomplete, prior to creation). Looking to God’s love prior to creation points out some very direct problems if we do away with the Trinity.

If God is love and God’s love is perfect then someone had to exist with Him eternally. There had to be someone that God sacrificed or shared with. As it turns out, the Father and Son shared that love with each other. The Father shared His glory with the Son and the Son submitted to the will of the Father. But since the love between two can sometimes be viewed as selfish, there is a third Person involved to prevent the love from being selfish. Here we have the Holy Spirit, who shares in the glory of the Father (showing sacrifice on the Father’s part), but who also submits to the will of the Father (showing sacrifice on the Spirit’s part).

The Trinity as a foundation for understanding God’s love opens us up to a life changing experience. If love is sacrificial and God, who is greater than us, is capable of sacrificing, then certainly we should be capable of sacrifice as well. When we think of God as love, too often we are tempted to look to our own experience, which is fine, but can also cause us to focus too much on ourselves. The Trinity informs us of God’s love and that love (sacrifice) is woven into the essence of God; who He is, unified, but discovered in Three Persons, is all because of love. Only Christians can lay claim to such a God.

The Persons of the Trinity

We understand now that God is one and unified, yet distinct in His Personage. However, what makes each Person so distinct? If all are unified in essence, then what is it that makes each one different from the other? The simple truth is that even the distinctions of the Persons comes down to a mystery, however, Scripture does seem to tell us that we relate to each Person differently. The way we view the Father and react to the Father is different (but equal) to how we view and react to the Son and Spirit. Likewise, there are divisions between the three that we do know about.

The Father –

When looking at the distinctions between the Persons of the Trinity, we should begin with the Father. The reason is that the Father alone is the source of the Word and the Spirit and shares His glory with them. Nothing is higher than the Father. The great theologian taught, “Before the great Father, nothing was. For he holds within himself everything, and nothing higher than the Father exists.”[3] The Father is eternal and nothing is greater than the Father; but the Father is also truly transcendent. When we say that we cannot see God and cannot relate to God, we are referring to the Father.

We know that the Father alone is unbegotten and since He holds that distinction, He is the origin of all things. All things that are created belong to Him and find their origin in Him. He has shaped all things and all things maintain their existence because of Him. While we have natural laws, it is God who maintains the natural laws and allows them to continue to exist (this stands true for everything under the natural law as well). Since God is the source of all things and does not draw from any other source, we call Him truly unbegotten.

The Father does not does not maintain things in some cold manner or without attachment to the world, rather the Father takes delight in all good things. In reflecting on the delight of the Father, St. Basil the Great wrote;

“The Father enjoys our awe at everything which proceeds from the glory of the Only-begotten; He rejoices both in His Son who accomplishes such deeds, and in the deeds themselves, and exults in being known as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, “for whom and through whom all things exist.””[4]

The Father takes delight in our awe of all that He has accomplished. Being awe-struck is a difficult thing to accomplish anymore; with HDTV, 3DTV, advanced video games, the internet, and other technological advancements often rob us of our awe of creation. Why go to the Grand Canyon when I can look it up on YouTube? Why gaze at the stars when I can just look up pictures of galaxies on Google? But there is still something innate within humanity that when we see these things in person – when we see the Rocky Mountains or the Swiss Alps, or when we see a pristine Pacific beach in Mexico – we’re left in awe. It is this awe that brings delight to the Father.

The Word –

St. Basil also pointed out that the Father takes delight when we are awed with His Son, the Word of God. Likewise, the Father rejoices when we recognize Him as the Father because we have come in contact with the Word. Thus, the Word is the revealer of the Father, or “God reveals God.” Since the Father is transcendent, the Word is the mediator between humanity and the Father (1 Timothy 2:5).

The Word is begotten, which is unlike the Father, but this does not mean the Word is “lesser” than the Father or is not God. When we think of “begotten” we think of the physical act of giving birth, but when this term is used in John 3:16, Jesus did not mean He was begotten like we are begotten. Rather, it simply means that He gains His source from the Father (after all, God doesn’t beget like we do[5]). The begetting of the Word is (you guessed it) a mystery. It is something that goes beyond our ability to reason because it deals with the nature of God. Once again, St. Basil the Great wrote, “The supreme eminence of the Father is inconceivable; thought and reflection are utterly unable to penetrate the begetting of the Lord.”[6] St. Basil’s reflection serves to teach us that while we know that the Son comes from the Father, this “coming from” did not originate at a point in time, but is eternal.

One way the ancient Christians used to describe what they meant by saying the Son was eternally begotten from the Father was that of the sun and its rays of light. The sun begets the rays of light, but they are not newer than the sun or independent of the sun. They are reliant on the sun as their source, but are the same age as the sun (the original rays of light that is). Though the rays of the sun do not provide an analogy (for the Trinity cannot have an analogy since nothing else is like the Trinity), it does show that it’s possible for the Word to be eternally begotten by the Father – that is, receiving the glory of the Father – without being subordinate or lesser than the Father or having being temporal. The Father shares with the Word, but has done so eternally.

Just as the rays of light let us know about the sun, so too does the Word reveal the Father (Matthew 11:27). This is because the Father accomplishes His will through the Son; whether it be the act of creation, a word spoken to humanity, or any other act of the will that requires God to condescend to our level, such an action takes place through the Word (hence His name as ‘Word’). The Word is not simply some robot that is forced to do the will of the Father, but rather He has His own will, but His will aligns with His Father’s will.[7] No difference in purpose exists between the Father and the Word; they work together in one accord (John 10:30).

The Spirit –

Just as the Father and Word work together, so too does the Spirit work with the Father and the Word. Sadly, however, the Spirit is often under covered in discussions on the Trinity, so much so that most theologians probably lack proper knowledge of what the Holy Spirit does. To many, He’s just the third member of the Trinity, but reality is far more than our perspective.

As with the Word and the Father, the Spirit is ultimately a mystery both in His personage and as God. Christian teachings has always taught that the Spirit is equal to the Father and Son and shares in the Divine essence of God.[8] In fact, St. Basil, concerning the Spirit, wrote, “He existed; He pre-existed; He co-existed with the Father and the Son before the ages. Even if you can imagine anything beyond the ages, you will discover that the Spirit is even further beyond.”[9] The eternality of the Spirit and subsequently the mystery of the Spirit is the same as it is with the Father and the Son, for all are God and God is a mystery.

The distinction in the Holy Spirit is that He proceeds from the Father (and is not begotten) and is the enactor of the Father’s will here on earth and in Heaven. If the Word reveals the Father, it is the Spirit who enacts the will of the Father and makes that will known to us. In other words, the Spirit is involved in getting us to see the Word so that we might in turn see the Father.[10] The Spirit is the One who reveals prophecy and revelation, especially for the prophets of Israel.[11] Thus, the Spirit is the revealer of things to come and the one who brings about the Father’s will here on earth.

Yet, in all of this, the Spirit is God. He is worthy of all worship and has all glory within Himself. We should reflect upon the words of St. Basil the Great, who wrote;

“All things thirsting for holiness turn to Him; everything living in virtue never turns away from Him…He perfects all other things, and Himself lacks nothing; He gives life to all things, and is never depleted… He is the source of sanctification, spiritual light, who gives illumination to everyone using His powers to search for the truth – and the illumination He gives is Himself….Sing also the Spirit’s glory, and don’t separate in speech what the nature did not leave out. Let us quake before the great Spirit, who is my God, who’s made me know God, who is God there above, and who forms God here…who brings life to those in heaven and on earth, and is enthroned on high…” [12]

Notice how St. Basil draws upon the perfection of the Holy Spirit and shows the contrast between Him and us. While the Spirit perfects things, He Himself does not need to be perfected because He is perfect as is, which is only possible if He is God. He is God, He reveals God, He is God up above, and He forms God here (meaning He reveals God).

The beautiful mystery of the Trinity

How is it that the Spirit reveals God, but is God? How it is that the Son reflects God, but is also God? How is it that the Father stands as God, but then credits the Word and Spirit as being God as well? The fact is we do not know and we will never know. To know what unifies the three Persons of the Trinity would require us to know the essence of God, which as we have discovered is impossible. God is unapproachable and we cannot know His nature, thus we cannot understand the Trinity. What we can gain from the Trinity is that our God is one in essence, but distinct in personage. The Father is God, but is not the Son or Spirit. The Son is God, but not the Father or Spirit. The Spirit is God, but not the Father or Son. All three are God, but distinct.

Within the Trinity we find love between perfect persons, but where do we fit into the Trinity? As the Trinity is a mystery, so too does creation stand as an ultimate mystery – why did God create when perfection existed prior to creation? Why would God, existing in perfect fellowship with Himself, choose to condescend Himself to create? For whatever reason, the Three chose to share their love with beings lesser than themselves, and so creation began.

[1] St. John of Damascus, 277

[2] Gregory of Nazianzus, 44-45

[3] St. Gregory of Nazianzus, 39

[4] On the Holy Spirit, 39

[5] John of Damascus, 180

[6] On the Holy Spirit, 29

[7] On the Holy Spirit, 39

[8] John of Damascus, 183

[9] OTHS, 77

[10] Ibid 67

[11] Ibid 64

[12] Ibid 43