Trinity — Is it Three or One …?

The doctrine of the Trinity flows from the Incarnation. Once we have acknowledged that Jesus is God (the Son) we must have some understanding which still enables us to believe in, only, one God. This may sound artificial, but it is not. Jesus could not be God if he was actually another God. Jesus and the Father are the same God. We do need a recap though.

It is a good idea for us to state why we believe Jesus to be God. Given that our theology and reflection are based on the Bible it would be easy to say, ‘Because the Bible says so,’ but also too easy. Most Christian approaches to the Bible do not match the Islamic concept of a Book or Word come down from God, we believe that Jesus is The Word. We cannot use the Bible as a simple foundation for our beliefs. To avoid the problem of ‘because …’ we must take into account where the Bible came from and who wrote it. The Gospel accounts and the rest of the Christian scriptures are a product of the Easter faith. It was the Resurrection which validated the prophethood, and more than prophethood of Jesus (pbuh). After the Resurrection his followers were able to see him as God, it was after the Resurrection that they worshipped him. Though his followers were orthodox Jews there is no evidence that they had difficulty with the idea of a man being God or, to reflect Acts, ‘Lord’. This understanding of Jesus is apparent in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, though it may be seen as containing potentially adoptionist ideas (and we do not know when this text was first assembled):

32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. 33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
35 until I make your enemies your footstool.”’
36 Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Whether one is particularly aware of it or not, all the references to the divinity of Jesus in the Gospels and Acts flow from the Resurrection, or more appropriately the Resurrection/Ascension. The latter is a feature of Mark’s second ending and Luke, potentially raising the question — what would Matthew and John have written next about Jesus if their accounts had continued? Jesus continues to speak until the end of both Gospels. Although the different traditions can cause problems, particularly in the search for the ‘historical Jesus’ we can still turn to the Bible as a pointer for faith, it directs us to inexpressible realities but cannot function as ‘proof’, that is not its purpose. In fact faith cannot be proved (in this life), except by hope (and love), nor can ‘proof’, even absolute proof, whatever that is, possibly a face to face encounter with God (which even Moses did not achieve) cannot cause faith (as the apostle Paul {pbuh} says — ‘faith is a gift’). The Holy Spirit mediates the witness of the record of faith (the ‘Word’), there is no belief in the incarnation without the working of the Spirit, Paul backs me up again here — ‘no one is able to say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12.3). Though this is not to suggest that the Spirit is not at work in those who do not believe in Incarnation, that would be to allow our own theological tradition to trespass into other spaces where God is most definitely at work.


  • Is this, through the Spirit, how we know the incarnate Word, or have we come to some merely human understanding of who Jesus is?
  • What is the connection between Incarnation and Trinity?

Early Trinitarian Emphases

I begin with Acts as it is explicitly post-Resurrection, if written relatively late. I have not explored the question of the ‘historical post-Resurrection disciples’. We may have a window into the experience of the early Church. Interestingly, the beginning of Acts (chapter 1) has Trinitarian pointers:

4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

The Ascension of Jesus

6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

This latter saying raises the question — Where did Luke get the idea of Jesus baptising with the Holy Spirit? The words are reportedly from Jesus, but are strongly reminiscent of the words of John the Baptist, and appear to be an application to a new context.

Why are all the Gospels, except for John, so quiet about the baptism with/sending of the Spirit during Jesus’ ministry?

Was John the Baptist’s statement an expectation that was unfulfilled during Jesus’ lifetime, or a post-Resurrection theme read back into the opening account of Jesus’ ministry?

This new context is within the ‘Jerusalem’ tradition of Resurrection stories, remember Mark and Matthew follow the ‘Galilee’ tradition exclusively, Luke ‘Jerusalem’ exclusively, whereas John has both Jerusalem and Galilee. Yet Luke and John are independent, John has no mention of waiting for the Holy Spirit (his Gospel doesn’t do waiting), in fact see 20.21 ‘Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”’ This seems to replace the Pentecost account and experience, it is Trinitarian though, only God can give the Spirit (as the story of Elisha’s succession to Elijah’s ministry tells us). There may be good reasons why none of the other Gospel writers have the Pentecost tradition, or even pointers to it. Stating the obvious, one can say that Pentecost is unique to the Resurrection/Ascension tradition. It is only one version of the unfolding story.

However, we were thinking about the Trinity, the verses from Acts are clearly Trinitarian. Note too the inter-Trinitarian relationship between Son and Spirit — ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses.’ — different ‘persons’ but united and with distinct roles. Also, that it is the Father who sends the Spirit, just as the Father sent the son and receives him back again, though as God he never actually left.

What thoughts do you have about the post-Resurrection development of Trinitarian ideas?

What is the relationship between Jesus/the Word or Son of God and the Holy Spirit?

The Gospels

The three ‘persons’ of the Trinity are present throughout the Gospels, notably in Jesus’ own baptism (Mark 1): 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The Father sends the Spirit and speaks to the Son. While we can question the meaning of ‘Son’ here (it has Messianic significance not necessarily implying divinity) there is no doubt that post-Resurrection, when the Gospels were written, it is conveying the idea of divinity. This allows for the possibility that the actual event, as reported, is dependent on a post-Resurrection outlook, the use of scriptural references supports this. All four traditions have this account, with some variation. Two of the Gospels portray Jesus as receiving the Holy Spirit twice:

The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God (Luke 1.35); Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[a] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1.18)

Again these are Trinitarian (not contemporaneous) accounts, the achieving of the Incarnation is not by any heretical merging or divine-human hybridisation, but by the agency of the Holy Spirit, working for the Father, on behalf of the Son (NB this is not a literal father or son). The whole Trinity is involved in the incarnation, it cannot be otherwise, though it is the Son/Word who becomes incarnate, not the Spirit and not the Father.

Is a Trinitarian understanding of Jesus’ birth and baptism convincing?

We need not spend much time on the Son’s relationship with the Father, which is continually present in the Gospels, though we should note that it is as the one person with two natures that Jesus calls God ‘Father’, God is his father in a sense which is different and ‘more than’ the way in which God is ‘our’ Father. He does not call God Father merely because all people are ‘children’ of God, or even because he is merely the perfect human — unless we are proposing a non-orthodox and therefore non-Trinitarian incarnation. The Spirit is also continually present, though without conveying much about the relationship, except in John.

How conscious are you that the interaction between Jesus and the Father takes place within a Trinitarian context?

Just as the Gospels began with Jesus’ Trinitarian baptism, so Matthew’s Gospel (only) closes with Jesus’ Trinitarian baptismal commission. We should consider the weight and significance of this Gospel’s Trinitarian opening and closing. It can be said that there is a strong argument that the words — Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit — are a reflection of the Church rather than Jesus. The words are ‘new’ and ecclesiastical compared to the rest of the Gospel and Jesus showed little interest in baptism during his ministry. It is only John’s Gospel which associates baptism with Jesus. Nevertheless, they are robustly Trinitarian, each ‘Person; is identified equally and specifically, in the familiar ‘evangelical’ order- the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit.

Are these the words of the Church? Is the Church more robustly and explicitly Trinitarian than Jesus?

Trinitarian emphases in the rest of the Christian Scriptures

Paul uses Trinitarian greetings and blessings. 1 John is one of the most Trinitarian scriptures.

The Doctrine

Though we have looked at many verses, Scripture references are not really doctrine. What elements does the doctrine of the Trinity have? This may be where I should mention a Muslim friend who said that very few Christians were able to explain what they meant by ‘the Trinity’. Though I agreed with him he didn’t put me on the spot, the following paragraphs are for him.

The main ideas about the Trinity are:

  • it explains how Jesus can be God, without violating the oneness of God
  • it is logically necessary, given that we believe that Jesus is God incarnate
  • the Trinity cannot be divided, though each ‘Person’ is distinct there is a sharing in a common ‘Godness’ (with apologies for such language) and purpose
  • Christian heresies (I only use this word when talking about doctrinal formulation, otherwise I have no use for it) result from denying the distinctness of the ‘Persons’
  • the Trinity has always been, predating the Incarnation — though the incarnation is a critical (life-changing!) event in the life of God. It is not the incarnation which creates the Trinity, and yet it is the Trinity which prepares for, implies and even demands the incarnation. So to restate an earlier point — Trinity is an incarnational theology.

To sum up, two quotations:

‘in the Holy trinity the three divine Persons are internally interrelated in such a coherent way that the one being of God belongs to each of them as it belongs to all of them, and to all of them as to each of them.’ (T.F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God)

‘There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.’ (Ephesians 4:4–6)