By Daniel K. Bediako
Of all Christian teachings, the doctrine of God is most difficult to explain. This is so because our finite human mind cannot fully comprehend the infinite God. At the center of this doctrine is the concept of the Trinity, or the Godhead, by which is meant that God is one in essence but three in person. Thus, Christians generally believe in one God—a triune God—not three Gods. But if God is one, how can there be a Trinity? And if there is a Trinity, why do we believe there is one God? Let’s search for some answers from the Bible!
The Oneness of God
Scripture tells us that there is one God: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4; see 1 Cor. 8:4-6).1 However, the same Scripture says that the Father is God (Matt. 27:46; 1 Cor. 8:6), the Son/Christ is God (John 1:1; 20:28; 2 Peter 1:1), and the Holy Spirit is also God (Acts 5:3, 4; 2 Cor. 3:17, 18). These persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, constitute the Godhead.
The Plurality of God:
The concept of the Trinity is not explicit in the Old Testament, though it is not completely absent. The divine summons in Genesis 1:26 (“Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness”; cf. Gen. 3:22) has often been understood to have the Godhead in view. The “angel of the Lord” who appeared to Moses in a burning bush (Ex. 3:2) calls Himself “the Lord,” “God” (verse 15), and “I AM” (verse 14). It is this “angel of the Lord” whom God sent to lead Israel to Canaan (see Ex. 23:20, 21; cf. Ex. 14:19) and who appears in Joshua 5:14 as “Commander of the army of the Lord” (NKJV).2 In Psalm 45:6-8 (cf. Heb. 1:8, 9) God is anointed by God, suggesting, as in the above texts, that there is more than one divine person. Isaiah 63 presents three divine persons: the Lord/Father (verses 8-11, 16), the “angel of His presence” (verse 9), and His Holy Spirit (verses 10, 11, 14). As in Isaiah 63:16, God is also called Father (e.g., Deut. 32:6; Isa. 64:8; Mal. 2:10).
There are also references to a God-Son: “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us, . . . and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). Isaiah 53 refers to a “Servant” whom the Lord caused to bear the iniquity of others (verses 6, 10, 11). This Servant is universally understood to refer to Christ, and is distinct from the Lord (i.e., the Father) and the Spirit (Isa 42:1; 48:16). Similarly, Daniel 7:9-14 presents two divine beings: the “Ancient of Days” who presides over the judgment and the “Son of Man” to whom the everlasting kingdom is given. The anointed Messiah (Dan. 9:25), the “man dressed in linen” (Dan. 10:5, 6), and Michael (verses 13, 21; Dan, 12:1), all refer to the Son of Man. Finally, as in Isaiah 63, there are references to the Holy Spirit, sometimes with personal characteristics (e.g., Gen. 6:3; Isa. 48:16).
The Plurality of God:
In the New Testament the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are presented as distinct persons. God the Father is referred to many times (John 5:36, 37). The Father sent the Son to save the world (John 3:16, 17). The Son obeyed the Father (Matt. 26:39-42), whom He calls “MY GOD” (Matt. 27:46). Christ is “the Son” (Luke 22:70) and is God (John 1:1; Col. 2:9; Titus 2:13). This God-Son was crucified, but He arose from the dead and returned to the Father (John 20:17). Subsequently, the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33), who is Himself God (Acts 5:3, 4), and has personal characteristics (John 16:7-13; Acts 13:2, 4; 16:6, 7).
Some believe that there is one
God but reject the concept of Trinity. For them, Father, Son, and Spirit are manifestations of a single divine person. This view encounters insurmountable difficulty in passages where three divine persons are seen taking distinct actions simultaneously. For example, at Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descended in the form of a dove, and the Father called out from heaven: “You are My beloved Son” (Mark 1:11). Further, because the Father sent the Son to the earth, and because the two sent the Spirit, it follows that the Son is not the same person as the Father and that the Spirit is distinct from the other two persons.
There is a Trinitarian formula, which presents the Godhead as consisting of three coequal and coeternal persons who, while distinct, are an undivided unity (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14; 1 Peter 1:2; Jude 20, 21). For example: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Note that baptism takes place not in the names but in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This implies that while the persons of the Godhead are distinct, they are indissolubly united in essence and nature: “Therefore it is evident that in God’s substance
there are three persons, in which
the one God is recognized.”3
Function or Relation?
Because God is one in three, the terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit may best be understood in terms of function as opposed to relation. In this regard, the Father sends the Son (John 3:16, 17), the Son accomplishes His task (John 19:30), and the Holy Spirit continues the divine work (John 14:26). When understood in terms of function, we do not need to ask whether the Son was really born by the Father, or whether the Father and the Son are superior to the Spirit. So even though Mary was “found to be with child by the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18), the Spirit is not the Father of the Son, who is Himself “Eternal Father” (Isa. 9:6). We worship one God who reveals Himself in and consists of three, distinct persons who participate in one substance and coexist in unity. This doctrine is biblical, even if it remains a mystery.
Daniel K. Bediako, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer at the School of Theology and Missions, Valley View
University, Ghana. He is married to Gifty and has two children, Hehra and Daniel.