This post is a chapter from Dr. Timothy Tennent’s book, 30 Questions: A Short Catechism on the Christian Faith available for purchase from our store. This resource makes for a great teaching tool in local churches, especially for catechesis purposes. We’re featuring a chapter each week in hopes of encouraging you to pick up the book and share it with others as well.
Christianity, like all monotheistic religions, asserts that there is only one God. We do not believe in three Gods. However, Christianity is unique in our understanding that the one God exists in three eternal and personal distinctions known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The church has used the word “Trinity” to capture this great mystery. The word “Trinity” is a combination of two words, “Tri” and “unity.” The “tri” refers to the three eternal distinctions; the “unity” is to reinforce that we believe in only one God. This is normally expressed by saying that we believe that God is one in essence, but reveals himself through three eternal personal distinctions known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The purpose of this revelation is primarily to demonstrate the personal, relational nature of God. God is, even apart from creation, eternally personal and relational. As the Puritans once observed, “God is, in himself, a sweet society.” There is relationship in the very nature of who God is. The whole universe flows forth from an eternal, relational tri-unity, not from a non-relational, solitary figure as taught by Islam.
The Christian idea that internal differentiation does not contradict God’s unity is even testified to in the created order. For example, a stone has little internal differentiation and, therefore, is not particularly unified in essence. If you split a stone into two pieces, you have not destroyed the essence of the stone, you have only created two smaller stones. However, if you cut a tiger into two pieces you do not get two small tigers, you get one dead tiger! Some of the lower creatures can be severed into two parts and still live and move independently for some time. Because their differentiation is low, their unity is likewise low. The more conscious and intelligent a being is, the greater the differentiation and the more profound the unity.
A person possesses a mind, thoughts, and speech. We function as a unity despite internal distinctions. The same point could be made about the body, soul, and spirit of a person. The fact that God himself has internal differentiation does not contradict his unity. On the contrary, we observe this harmony of plurality and unity in all higher forms of life.
The nature and essence of God is admittedly complex and mysterious. A common misunderstanding of God is that he took different forms at different times in history, but could only be in one form at any given time. This, however, is not a proper understanding of the Trinity. The three distinctions are co-existent, co-eternal, and equal. God decided in his self-revelation that the best way for humans to understand him is to see him as one God, revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three are not three separate modes, or operations, but three eternal relations within the One true God, the Trinity.
1 Corinthians 2:9–16
2 Corinthians 3:17
2 Corinthians 13:14
2 Thessalonians 1:12
1 Peter 1:1–2
2 Peter 1:1
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