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Laying Hands

The Triune God

Laying Hands

By Kenneth Richard Samples

Christian theism affirms the existence of an infinite, eternal, unchanging, and Tri-personal spiritual God. This being is the transcendent Creator and immanent Sustainer of the world and is therefore the sovereign Ruler over all things. Historic Christianity therefore affirms a special Trinitarian form of monotheism (Tri-unity: three persons are the one God).

The Doctrine of Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity1 reflects the Christian belief that God eternally and simultaneously exists as three distinct and distinguishable (though not separate) persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As theologian J. I. Packer notes: “God is not only he but also they.”2 Not a mere convention of man or of the church, the Bible itself reveals a God who possesses plurality of personhood within the one divine essence (Trinitarian monotheism). The one true God has forever been, is now, and shall ever subsist as three distinct persons. None of them came into being or became divine at a given moment in time. God is thus one in essence or being but three in personhood or subsistence. Philosophically speaking, God is therefore “one What” and “three Whos.”

The three distinct persons, though distinguishable from each other, all share equally the one divine essence and are thus the one God. Because there is no subordination or inferiority of essence or nature among the members of the Trinity, the three persons are coequal in nature, attributes, and glory. The Trinity sets the Christian concept of God apart from all other alternative views including even other monotheistic concepts.

The Trinity’s Biblical Basis

Though some people challenge the idea of biblical support for the Triune nature of God, six simple statements show how this doctrine is derived from Scripture:3

​1. There is only one true God (Deut. 6:4; Isa. 43:10; John 17:3; Gal. 3:20; 1 Tim. 2:5).

​2. The Father is called or referred to as God (Ps. 89:26; John 6:27; Eph. 4:6; Col. 1:2-3; 2 Pet. 1:17).

​3. The Son [Jesus Christ] is called or referred to as God (John 1:1; 20:28; Phil. 2:6; Col. 2:9; Titus 2:13;       Heb. 1:8).

​4. The Holy Spirit is called or referred to as God(Gen. 1:2; John 14:26; Acts 5:3-4; 13:2, 4; Rom. 8:11; Eph. 4:30).

​5. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons and can be distinguished from one another [the Father is not the Son; the Father is not the Holy Spirit; and the Son is not the Holy Spirit] (Matt. 28:19; Luke 3:22; John 15:26; 16:13-15; 2 Cor. 13:14). Here is a clear biblical example of how the persons are distinguishable from one another: “As soon as Jesus [second person] was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God [third person] descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven [first person] said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’” (Matt. 3:16-17).

​6. The three persons [Father or God; and Son or Christ or Lord; and Holy Spirit or Spirit] are frequently listed together in a triadic pattern of unity and equality (Rom. 15:16, 30; 1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; 3:3 Gal. 4:6; Eph. 2:18; 4:4-6; 2 Thess. 2:13-14; Rev. 1:4-6). Here is a clear biblical example of that common triadic pattern: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect . . . chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood” (italics added, 1 Pet. 1:1-2).

The Trinity: A Biblical Inference

The logical inference drawn from these six biblical statements is that because there is only one true God, and because three distinct persons are all called God, then those three distinguishable persons mentioned in unity and equality must be one God. Therefore, the one God subsists as three distinct and distinguishable (but not separate) persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Thus, the Trinity doctrine is derived directly from the content of Scripture. Though the apostles of Jesus were Jewish monotheists who believed strictly in one God, they nevertheless recognized that two other persons (the Son and the Holy Spirit) were spoken of as God. All three persons possessed the qualities and prerogatives of deity. The apostles therefore modified traditional Jewish monotheism in light of the revelation concerning the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit.

What the Trinity Doctrine is Not

Because the Trinity doctrine is often misunderstood and misrepresented, it is important to understand what this teaching does not teach or imply. In addition, how Christianity’s Triune God differs from other religious and worldview conceptions of God needs to be considered.

1. The three “persons” in the Godhead should not be understood to imply three different beings or gods, for this would wrongly divide the one divine essence (monotheism). Orthodox Trinitarianism rejects belief in more than one or many gods (polytheism) in general and belief in three different gods (tritheism) in particular. Trinitarian monotheism, therefore, stands at odds with the various forms of dualism (two foundational deities) and the polytheism found in ancient and Eastern religions (Shintoism, popular Hinduism, and animism). Other polytheistic expressions such as in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism) can be found primarily in the Western world.

2. The unity of God’s nature (monotheism) should not be emphasized at the expense or exclusion of the plurality of personhood found within God’s single essence. Orthodox Trinitarianism therefore rejects radical or extreme forms of monotheism that make God a solitary person. Types of these more extreme unitarian religious systems are found in the ancient heresy of monarchianism (god as a single, solitary person) as well as in the traditional monotheistic religions of Judaism, Islam, and Unitarianism. They also appear in the more philosophical system known as deism (a solitary god that creates the universe but does not intervene within it).

3. Because the Triune God of the Bible is superpersonal (more than personal), religions that view God as impersonal (less than personal)—such as some versions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and the New Age movement—are ruled out. God’s superpersonal existence also eliminates those rare forms of religion that tend to be atheistic in their core beliefs, such as Theravada Buddhism and Jainism.

4. The three persons in the Godhead should not be thought of as mere modes or expressions of existence (a single divine person changing roles, titles, or manifestations).Rather, these three persons are eternally and simultaneously distinct from each other. Orthodox Trinitarianism, therefore, rejects all forms of modalism that blend or confound the persons by defining them as mere modes of existence such as found in the contemporary United Pentecostal Church (sometimes referred to as Oneness or Jesus Only Pentecostals).

5. The Trinity doctrine does not teach that the persons within the Godhead came into existence or progressively became divine at a given moment in time. God is an eternally Triune being. Orthodox Trinitarianism, therefore, rejects all Arian-like religions (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, and the Iglesia ni Cristo) that make the Son a creature and deny the Holy Spirit’s personality and deity. Mormonism’s progression-to-godhood teaching is likewise rejected on this basis.

6. The three persons of the Trinity should not be understood as three parts, fractions, or emanations of God. Each person is fully and completely divine and equally and simultaneously possesses all of God’s being. The dualistic emanations of God found in the ancient religions of Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism are at odds with historic Christianity. Orthodox Trinitarianism, therefore, rejects any and all views that diminish the deity of each particular person of the Trinity.

7. The Trinity doctrine should not be understood to imply a subordination or inferiority of essence among the three persons. The members of the Trinity are qualitatively equal in attributes, nature, and glory. While Scripture reveals subordination among the divine persons in terms of position or role (for example the Father glorifies the Son, the Son submits to the Father, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son), there exists absolutely no subordination of essence or nature. Orthodox Trinitarianism, therefore, rejects any and all views that teach a subordination of essence among the three members.

One can see, then, that the essential Christian doctrine of the Trinity allows the creature to peer ever so slightly into the window of God’s infinite nature and personhood.

God’s Incommunicable Attributes

Some divine attributes4 are metaphysical in nature and illustrate just how the Creator is separate from the created order (thus incommunicable). Since some of these characteristics are the focus of criticism today, a brief description of them seems appropriate.

What God Alone Is

1. Self-Existent (Independent, Aseity). God does not need nor does he depend upon anything outside himself (such as the creation) for his continued existence. Unlike all creatures, the source of God’s eternal or everlasting existence is found within himself (self-sufficiency). As the only uncreated and uncaused being, everything else (the entire created order) depends upon his creative and sustaining power. Scripture clearly reveals God’s self-existence or aseity.5

2. Immutable (Constant). God is unchanging with regard to his being, attributes, purpose, and promises. This unchangeableness does not mean that God is static or immobile or that he is detached, unconcerned or indifferent to the condition of his creatures. Rather, God is eternally active and experiences something analogous to passionate emotion6 as is consistent with his infinite, perfect, and unchanging moral character. God’s constancy is clearly shown in the Bible.7

3. Eternal (Unlimited by time). With no beginning or end, God (who transcends time) has no temporal limitations. Some classical Christian theologians believed that God does not experience a succession of moments in his being and therefore exists in an infinite present without past or future (God is timeless). While some present-day theologians continue to hold to the classical view, others believe that eternity should be understood as an endless duration of time over which God has always existed (God is everlasting). Regardless of which of these two views a person accepts, Christian orthodoxy affirms that God sees all time and events with equal vividness. He also acts in time without time changing or limiting his being in any respect. God stands as the Creator of time itself.8 His eternality is clearly reflected in Scripture.9

4. Simple (Unified). God is a unique and uncompounded being without divisions, parts, or disparate elements within the one divine nature. The three persons within the Godhead share fully and equally the one unified divine essence. Every attribute of God found in Scripture is fully characteristic of all God’s being. The Bible makes this simplicity known.10

5. Spiritual (Invisible, Incorporeal). An infinite being of pure spirit, God is without a body or material parts and is by nature invisible to the physical eye and imperceptible by the rest of man’s senses. God’s total divine essence has not and cannot be seen. Scripture clearly reflects this divine attribute.11

6. Omnipotent (All-powerful). God is an infinite all-powerful being and nothing can frustrate his sovereign will or purpose. He can do all things that are consistent with his character and nature. However, God cannot engage in irrational or immoral acts, for these actions would violate his rational and ethical nature.12 God can thus do that which is humanly impossible (for example, raise the dead), but he cannot do that which is impossible by definition or logic (for example, create a square circle). Many Bible texts confirm God’s omnipotence.13

7. Omnipresent (Everywhere present). With no spatial limitations or boundaries, God is an infinite being. His entire being is present everywhere throughout the created order—at every point throughout all space, although space itself cannot contain him.14 God is the Creator of space, time, matter, and energy.15 The Bible clearly demonstrates his omnipresence.16

8. Omniscient (All-knowing). God, as an infinite being, has a perfect and complete knowledge of all things. This knowledge includes the past, the present, and the future17as well as what is possible18and what is actual.19 He has a complete awareness of himself20 and of human beings.21 Unlike the creature, God’s knowledge is immediate and direct22 so that his knowledge does not grow or change. His omniscience is clearly reflected in Scripture.23

Additional Characteristics Implied By God’s Incommunicable Attributes

God’s divine attributes often signify other characteristics. These qualities are manifested in God’s relationship to the created order and to human beings.

1. Transcendent (Above and beyond the created order). God exists outside of the created order and rules over it. He is distinct in nature from the cosmos. His transcendence is closely connected to his work as Creator. 24

2. Immanent **(Present within the created order*. Though transcendent, God is present and active in the world he created.25 (God is distinct in being from creation but geographically present within it.) His immanence is closely connected to his omnipresence and work as providential Sustainer.

3. Sovereign (Absolute controller). God is the supreme Ruler of all things, absolute and independent of any authority outside himself.26 His sovereignty is closely tied to his omnipotence and to his work as Creator and Sustainer.

4. Wisdom. All God’s decisions, goals, and actions are right and bring about the greatest ultimate result.27 God’s wisdom is closely tied to his omniscience and to his work as Creator.

5. Incomprehensible (Beyond human comprehension). Finite creatures cannot completely fathom God’s infinite nature.28 This lack of understanding does not imply that God is somehow unintelligible or contradictory. His incomprehensibility is closely tied to his omniscience and wisdom.

Kenneth Richard Samples is senior research scholar at Reasons To Believe (www.reasons.org). He also serves as adjunct instructor of apologetics at Biola University. He is the author of the recent book, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Baker, 2007).

Article from the Areopagus Journal Essential Doctrines Volume 9 Number 2

 

Notes

1 For discussion on the doctrine of the Trinity, see Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), specifically chapter 8: “The Historic Christian View of God,” 129-52; and Without A Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), specifically chapter 5: “How Can God Be Three and One?” 63-76. 2 Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J. I. Packer, eds. New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), s.v. “God.”

3 For extensive scriptural support for the doctrine of the Trinity, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity: An Outline Study,” Center for Biblical Apologetics, https://www.biblicalapologetics. net/Subjects/T/Trinity_Outline.htm {accessed: February 12, 2006).

4 There is no universally accepted list of divine attributes presented by Christian theologians. Those incommunicable attributes mentioned here are some of the most important, but the list is certainly not exhaustive.

5 Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 40:13-14, 44:24; Jeremiah 10:10; John 5:26; Romans 11:34-35; Revelation 4:11.

6 Evangelical theologians have different views on the question of whether God has emotions. The ‘classical theism’ position is that God does not have emotions. Much depends, however, on how one defines emotion.

7 Numbers 23:19; Psalm 33:11, 102:27; Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 6:17, 13:8.

8 Titus 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:9.

9 Deuteronomy 33:27; Psalm 90:2, 102:27; Isaiah 57:15; 1 Timothy 1:17.

10 Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 43:10, 44:6; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6.

11 Exodus 20:4-6, 33:20; John 4:24; 1 Timothy 1:17, 6:15-16; 1 John 4:12

12 Titus 1:2, 6:17-18; James 1:13.

13 Genesis 18:14; 2 Chronicles 20:6; Isaiah 14:27; Matthew 19:26; Mark 10:27; Luke 1:37; Ephesians 1:11.

14 1 Kings 8:27.

15 Genesis 1:1; Isaiah 44:24.

16 Psalm 139:7-10; Isaiah 66:1; Jeremiah 23:23-24; Acts 7:48-49; Ephesians 4:10.

17 Isaiah. 46:9-10.

18 Matthew 11:21-23.

19 Hebrews 4:13.

20 1 Corinthians 2:10-11.

21 Psalm 139:1-2.

22 Psalm 90:4.

23 Job 37:16; Psalm 139:1-4; Isaiah 40:28; Romans 11:33.

24 1 Kings 8:27; Psalm 102:25-27; Isaiah 40:22, 42:5, 66:1-2; Acts 7:48-49.

25 Deuteronomy 4:7; Psalm 139:7-10; Jeremiah 23:23; Acts 17:27-28.

26 Deuteronomy 10:14; Psalm 103:19, 135:6; Proverbs 16:33; Acts 16:14; Ephesians 1:11, 21.

27 Psalm 104:24, 147:5; Daniel 2:20-21; Romans 16:27; Colossians 2:2-3.

28 Job 15:8; Isaiah 40:13-14; Jeremiah 23:18; Romans 11:34; 1 Corinthians 2:11.

 

 

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