Three Lies and a Truth | How the Doctrine of the Trinity emerged after 300 years of arguing.


One God in Three Persons.

The word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible, yet the concept of the Trinity—One God in three persons—is all over the pages of scripture.

Dr. Ware defines the Trinity as “God’s whole and undivided essence belongs equally, eternally, simultaneously, and fully to each of the three Persons of the Godhead, so that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each is fully God while each is his own personal expression, in role and activity, of the one eternal and undivided divine essence. (SBTS Class Notes)

The Bible teaches that God is one (Deut. 6:4), there is only one God (Deut. 4:35), and God is three (Matt. 28:19). This paradox caused much debate and disagreement among early Christians who sought to answer this question, “How can Jesus be God if there is only one God?” The question lead to at least three heresies before agreement about the Trinity was reached.

First heresy — Adoptionism (Before 200 AD).

Adoptionism taught that Jesus is a mere man who God the Father adopted as His Son because of his excellent character. Jesus is not really God, just holds the title the Son of God. This teaching was not popular among early Christians because the NT clearly teaches Jesus is God, really God.

Second heresy — Modalism (3rd Century)

In the 3rd century a man name Sabellius came up with a way to explain how God is one and three, by saying God is not three at the same time. God took the form of Father in the OT, then the form of the Son in the NT, and now God exist in the form of the Holy Spirit. God is one and appears in three different forms: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but God is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the same time. This view was widely accepted in the early church.

Yet on further review, Modalism did not square with scripture. In scripture, God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the same time. At Jesus’ birth (Luke 1:35) and baptism (Matt. 3:16-17) all three are present, and in the gospels, Jesus prays to His Father who is in heaven.

Third heresy — Arianism (3rd Century)

Arius taught Jesus is a lesser god than God the Father. He is a created being and there was a time he was not. This view did not agree with scripture either, because if Jesus is a lesser created god, that means there are two Gods, not one.

A hero of the faith — Athanasius

Athanasius strongly opposed Arius and taught that if Jesus is not fully God salvation is not possible, because only God can make a payment to God for the sins of the world. Athanasius was forced into exile five times due to his refusal to compromise on the deity of Christ.

Council of Nicea (A.D. 325)

These various heresies (Adoptionism, Modalism, and Arianism) forced the church to gather and declare what the Bible teaches about God. Tertullian had introduced the language of “Trinity”, “unity of substance,” and “three persons,” and these terms are further expanded into the doctrine of the Trinity.

“We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father as only begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father…

And in the Holy Spirit.

But, those who say, Once he was not, or he was not before his generation, or he came to be out of nothing, or who assert that he, the Son of God, is of a different hypostasis or ousia, or that he is a creature, or changeable, or mutable, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.”

The line “of the same essence as the Father” is really important. The word translated “essence” is the Greek word “homoousios” and means “of the same substance.” They debated over this word and the followers of Arius wanted the word “homoiousios” instead, which means “of like substance.” But the early believers agreed that Jesus is not “of like substance” (homoiousios) of the Father, He is “of the same substance” (homoousios) as the Father. God from God, Light from Light.

Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381)

Since the early debate was over Jesus, the Nicene Council didn’t say much about the Holy Spirit. A few years later the followers of Arius claimed the Spirit is an impersonal force (think Star Wars). So the church called the Council of Constantinople and added these words about the Holy Spirit,

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, Life-giver, proceeds from the Father, who is to be glorified with the Father and Son who speaks through prophets.”

Later the Western church would add the Spirit processed from both the Father and the Son, while the Eastern Church insisted the Spirit only proceeds from the Father.

How do we explain what scriptures proclaims? One God in three persons, blessed Trinity? We do so by affirming the oneness and uniqueness of God. God is one and there is only one God. We also affirm the truth that God exist in three persons at the same time, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

God is one in essence and nature, three in persons. Not three God’s, one God existing in three persons.

Augustine once said, “If you can explain it, it’s not God.” That’s especially true of the Trinity. In one sense we can explain the Trinity, and in another sense the Trinity is a mystery beyond us.

Why does the doctrine of the Trinity matter? Because if God is not three in one, salvation is not possible. For God the Son made the sin payment of blood and God the Spirit took the payment to God the Father (Hebrews 9:14). We are saved by our Triune God, and we praise Him who is one in three, blessed Trinity.

Listen to the full sermon here.

Image: A Russian Orthodox depiction of the Council of Nicaea / Wikimedia Commons

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