We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty…
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ…
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.
An essential Christian belief is that God exists in a Trinity. Christians all over the world declare that those who do not accept the Trinity are not true Christians.
According to Christian theology (beliefs about God), the one God exists in three persons—Father, Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit. The three persons have the same quality of existence. One is not different from the others in substance. At the same time, the three persons are distinct from each other. They operate separately, but in concert with each other.
The problem with this doctrine (a doctrine is a particular thing believed in any religion) is that it is hard for people to understand. In fact, it is the most difficult concept in all of Christianity. Nothing in nature prepares us for it. Our brains tells us that either there are three Gods or else Jesus and the Holy Spirit are something less than God. Nothing else seems possible.
What the Bible Says
We saw in the last article that there is one and only one God. This was the belief of Israel and was expressed in the Old Testament. Early Christians also believed in only one God and declared it in the New Testament (NT). However, the NT also tells us that both the Son of God (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit are God.
The Father is one way to refer to God throughout the NT, especially by Jesus. Jesus called God “Father” about 170 times. There never was any debate that the Father is God.
The Son or Son of God, who lived on earth in the person of Jesus, is also God. Here are a few verses that led Christians to understand that Jesus was also God:
Mark 2:5-11 (ESV) And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming [meaning to speak wrongly about God]! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”–he said to the paralytic—”I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.”
John 10:30-33 (ESV) [Jesus said] “I and the Father are one.” The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?” The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.”
John 14:9 (ESV) [Jesus said:] “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
The Holy Spirit is also shown to be God in several passages where “Holy Spirit” and “God” are used interchangeably. In other words, they are the same. See Acts 5:3-4 and compare 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 with 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.
Finally, there are Trinitarian expressions in the NT, where Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are spoken of as a unit: Matthew 28:19 and 2 Corinthians 13:14. The baptismal formula [the words that are spoken when a new believer is baptized in water] in Matthew is particularly important. If Jesus and the Holy Spirit are not also God, then it makes no sense to baptize people in the name of God, a created being, and an impersonal force. All three are God.
The Origin of the Creed
When believers in the early church read the New Testament books, it was clear to them that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit were God along with the Father. However, many struggled with this concept. Unfortunately, the Bible says nothing that explains how three persons can equal a single God.
Because of the difficulty in understanding this concept, heretics (those who teach false beliefs) came up with explanations that satisfied human reasoning, but conflicted with what the Bible taught.
The first heresy was that Jesus was not God at all, but was an elevated created being. According to Arius, who proposed this idea, the Son was created before the world and was God’s special creation. Unlike the Father, who could not change at all (a Greek philosophical concept), the Son could become human, suffer, and die. He was “divine” (God-like) in some way, but was not actually God.
The second heresy believed that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit were God but denied three distinct persons. Taught by men named Praxeas and later Sabellius, they believed that there was only one God who revealed himself in different forms—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—at different times. These were not distinct persons, but just different ways of understanding and naming God. This heresy was called “modalism.”
The problem was so serious that the first council of all church leaders was called (see the main article for details). There were two key phrases in this creed: The first was to declare that Jesus, the Son, was “begotten, not made.” The word “begotten” is used of the Son in the NT, and means the act of a father or mother becoming a parent, normally by someone being born to them. Since God is not a physical being, it was understood that this had a different meaning in these contexts. Adding “not made” was to declare that the Son was not created by the Father, but that he always existed with Him.
The second phrase is to declare that Jesus was “of one Being with the Father.” In different English translations of the Creed (which was written in Greek), the key word is translated as “substance,” “the same essence,” or “reality.” The point that they were trying to make with their choice of word is that the Father and Son were the same type of being, that is God. The Son was not similar to the Father, He was the same.
Additionally, just by listing each of the persons of the Trinity in their own sections, they put to rest the idea that these were just phases or “modes” of God. Rather they are distinct persons.
The statement on the Holy Spirit declares that He “is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son.” This affirms both the deity of the Holy Spirit and the concept of three persons in one God.
How Do We Understand It?
Unfortunately, the Creed does not help us understand how this seemingly impossible situation works. Many theologians, then and now, have constructed philosophical formulas to try to explain it. They will not be listed here as they are quite complex and involve defining nearly every word.
In the end, we have to face the fact that God is beyond our understanding. The problem is not God or the Trinity, it is in our limited human ways of thinking. We are not eternal, we are limited by time and space. We are capable of thinking beyond what we observe, but there are limits. It is possible that when we pass from this life to the next one, we will understand this concept better, but for now, we are limited in our understanding.
The early church teachers recognized the concept of “mystery.” Since we believe that God is a completely different being than we are, there will always be things that are beyond our complete understanding. This is not a weakness, it is just a recognition of the difference.
“Mystery” will not satisfy some people. In our human pride, we believe that we should be able to fully understand everything. Unfortunately, we do not understand everything.
Even our greatest scientific discoveries end up raising more questions than were just solved. Critics of Christianity, especially from other religions, will say that what we believe does not make sense. They will accuse us of believing in three Gods or say that we contradict ourselves.
To believe in Jesus is to live in faith. Faith requires us to believe what God has said in every circumstance. We must believe when we don’t like it or don’t quite understand it.
To summarize, the Bible teaches—and the Christian church agrees—that there is only one God and that this God exists in three persons. The persons are distinct, yet indivisible. Even if we can’t completely understand it, we know that it is true. This is what counts.
Bob Caldwell, PhD, is Theologian-in-Residence at Network 211.