Doctrine Ch.20 - Trinity

This all-important doctrine can be diminished by simplistic formulae or metaphors, but God is at least as complex as his creation—and certainly more complex than a clover leaf!

When Erasmus produced the first printed Greek New Testament in 1516, he left out a part of 1 John now called the “Johannine Comma”—a key prooftext for the Trinity. Here is 1 John 5:7-8, with the part left out in italics: “For there are three that testify in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.”

       In his defense, he said this part wasn’t in any Greek manuscript, though it had appeared in all the Latin manuscripts since the ninth century. Exasperated by constant criticisms, Erasmus vowed that he would add the verse if anyone could show him even one Greek manuscript that contained it. So someone commissioned monks in Dublin to write one! Erasmus had to keep his vow, as he complained in the notes of his third edition.

       Such stories make me feel nervous. Like most biblical scholars, I regard this additional wording as merely a thought that someone noted in the margin of an early Latin manuscript. And, because accidental omissions by scribes were normally added in the margin, those who later copied this particular manuscript mistakenly inserted this marginal note into the text. It’s a really wonderful addition, but we don’t want to dilute God’s word with human thoughts, however useful they are. But for some in Erasmus’s day, defending doctrine was more important than their commitment to the exact Bible text. However, does the doctrine of the Trinity really depend on these additional words?

5-minute summary

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Core belief

The Trinity is a defining doctrine of Christianity, because those who do not hold to this belief (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Unitarians) are usually regarded as being outside the universal church. The Nicene Creed—which is accepted by Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike—was crafted especially to define the Trinity. The majority of it deals with the three persons of the Trinity, and all other doctrines are merely listed briefly in the last clause. The importance of this doctrine is mirrored in the epistles of John, where the center of the faith is acknowledging that Jesus is the Son of God. Those who are against the faith, who are called anti-Christ, deny this (1 John 2:22; 2 John 1:7). First John is also where the disputed verse about the Trinity occurs (or doesn’t occur).

       However, the Trinity is established firmly in the Bible even without this verse. It is true that you can’t find the words “Trinity” or “three in one” in the Bible, but you also can’t find phrases such as “resurrection of the body,” “priesthood of all believers,” or “communion of the saints.” Yet these doctrines are based on the Bible, just as the Trinity is.

       Although only a couple of verses have all three members of the Godhead in a single list (2 Cor 13:14; Matt 28:19), there are many others that refer to all three together (especially Luke 3:22; Acts 2:33; 1 Cor 6:11; Gal 4:6; see also John 20:21-22; Acts 1:4-5; 5:3-4; 7:55-56; 10:38; 11:15-17; Rom 5:5-6; 8:3-4, 16-17; 1 Cor 12:4-6; Eph 1:17; 4:4-6; 1 Thess 1:3-5; 2 Thess 2:13-14; Titus 3:4-6; Heb 2:3-4; 9:14; 10:29-30; 1 Pet 1:2; 1 John 3:23-24; 4:13-14; Jude 20-21). Other passages state or imply that the Holy Spirit is God (e.g., Acts 5:3-4; 2 Cor 3:17-18) and speak of Jesus as God (e.g., John 1:1; Acts 10:36; Rom 1:4; Phil 2:6; Col 1:15; 2:9). The New Testament also quotes Old Testament statements about God and applies them to Jesus (e.g., Rom 10:9-13 = Joel 2:32; Phil 2:10 = Isa 45:23). We can even see hints of it in the Old Testament when God says to himself: “Let us …” and “in our image” (Gen 1:26; 3:22; 11:7).

       Sadly, the early church was pulled apart by disputes about the Trinity because it is so difficult to square with other important doctrines such as the unity and changelessness of God. Some said that Jesus wasn’t ever a real mortal, because God can’t die. Others said he completely put aside his godhead while on earth, because he “emptied himself” (Phil 2:7). These disputes were ended by establishing official creedal statements describing Jesus as “fully God” and “fully man.” These creeds became almost more important than Bible texts for establishing doctrine.

       I do have some concerns about the doctrine of the Trinity as it came to be formulated in the creeds. I don’t think we’ve got it wrong, but it can encourage us to think too simplistically. We don’t take into account passages such as Romans 8:9-10, where the Holy Spirit is called both “the Spirit of God” and “the Spirit of Christ” (see also 2 Cor 3:17-18; Gal 4:6; Heb 9:14). Of course, this may merely be different ways to refer to the one Spirit, but it may also imply that our concept of three equal and separate persons is oversimplified. There are likely to be interrelationships in the Godhead that we can’t encompass with simple creedal statements.

       We don’t want to reduce doctrine to slogans because these can be as oversimplified as a politician’s sound-bite. But most of us don’t want to read long theological explorations of the Trinity either, so we often resort to illustrations, with the result that the Godhead gets shrunk to the size of a three-leaf clover. I may be about to make things worse, because I want to illustrate the Trinity by looking at the atom.

Still exploring

An atom was considered indivisible for two thousand years until we discovered it is made of three parts: electrons, protons, and neutrons. In a similar way, for a couple of thousand years Jews disseminated the precious truth that there is only one God, until Christ revealed a threefold structure within that Godhead.

       In this illustration, we could say that electrons are like the Holy Spirit. They travel as far from the core (in relative terms) as asteroids traveling around the solar system, and their influence extends far outside the atom through electrical and chemical interactions. Protons are perhaps like the Father because they determine the fundamental character of the atom. If the core has six protons, the atom is sooty carbon, but add just one more and it becomes gaseous nitrogen. Neutrons, the third component of atoms, are similar to protons, but a few of them can leave the core without altering the atom’s character. For example, carbon-14 and carbon-12 act identically inside our body, even though one is lighter by two neutrons. Jesus is a little like neutrons because he can be separate from the Father, and yet this type of absence does not diminish or change the Godhead.

       OK, this is no better than a host of other illustrations because, like them, it breaks down as soon as you start to investigate any detail. However, it does have one advantage: we are still investigating atoms, and we are discovering new complexities. We now know that neutrons and protons are each made of three quarks, and that electrons interact by constantly emitting and absorbing photons; and that’s just the start. Now, if we are willing to explore the complexities of atoms, we might also be willing to continue exploring the nature of God. If the Trinity can be compared to an atom, perhaps we should be prepared to explore additional complexities within it. That is, we might continue to dig into Scripture instead of complacently resting on what has already been discovered.

       Unlike those who were worried about the removal of the Johannine Comma, we shouldn’t expect to encapsulate the Creator of the universe in a handful of theological slogans. The Creator must be at least as complex as his creation. Simple doctrinal statements are good as summaries, as long as we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that they accurately represent the complex reality. Doctrines are valuable stepping stones to guide our paths while exploring more about God. He encourages us to find out about him in creation and the Bible. And he has given us firm foundations established by former saints and scholars. These are firm footings that enable us to explore the depths of Scripture more fully.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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