Can you explain the Holy Trinity?
Is Jesus God or his son?
Answer: I’ll try. It’s been said that every time someone tries to “explain” the Trinity they end up in heresy. Trinity is the Christian doctrine of God. The point of doctrine or dogma is to affirm what is essential, to set the boundaries or perimeters beyond which it is not safe to venture, although every theologian goes exploring. That’s what theology does: it is, as the medieval theologian Anselm said, “faith is search of understanding.”
The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that God is three persons in one. The Latin persona means “role,” like dramatis personae, “roles in the drama.” The “Name” that Christian teaching gives to this God is “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This affirmation of profession of faith is based on what Christians experienced of God through Jesus the Christ in the faith-producing work of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps the questioner senses that the linchpin of the doctrine of the Trinity is the other chief Christian doctrine: that of the two natures of Christ. This doctrine affirms that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is indivisibly true God and true man. Not sometimes God and sometimes human, but always inseparably both. Jesus is true man from conception and birth to death and resurrection. Jesus is also the manifestation or revelation of God.
The identifier “Son” means that this is another with whom God as such is identified. God is related to the Son the way he as “Father” is related to himself. Jesus identified God as his Abba, “Father.” God cannot be Jesus’ mother, because his mother is someone else: the Virgin Mary who gave birth to him as a human child.
This introduces another Christian doctrine: the “incarnation.” What is affirmed by this term is that the “Son” is “in the flesh”—our human flesh and blood. Jesus, who is Israel’s Christ or Messiah, shares our humanity to the full. If you want to see what the intention or mind of God is for us, you look to Jesus, and in particular what he did in his body: his birth, baptism, healing works, teaching, suffering, death, and burial—and his resurrection in the body. God’s intention is to redeem us from sin, death, and evil by what Jesus did for us and for our salvation in his body.
There is, yet, the third person of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the spirit of the Father and the Son. The Spirit bonds the Father and the Son together. The Spirit also connects us with the Father and Son by joining our spirits to God. The Spirit does this through “means of grace,” the Word (Scripture, preaching) and the Sacraments (Baptism, Holy Communion). Through these means the Spirit joins us to Christ. We become a part of the body of Christ.
We can’t be related to Christ just as spirit-to-spirit because we are not just spiritual beings, we are bodily beings. The Spirit works faith in us to trust the words of Christ, “This is my body, this is my blood of the new covenant,” when we receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion. As we all receive together the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ, we become one body, one community, in Christ.
This communion or community is the image or reflection of the God who is a community of persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity. The mission of God in the world, made visible in the life and ministry and sacrifice of his Son, is to join all humanity, even all creation, into the community of God. God is not a solitary individual; God is a community. Human beings are not intended to be just individuals; we are intended to be a human community. This is signified by being baptized “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Since earthly elements—water, oil of olives, bread from wheat, and wine from grapes—are used as sacramental signs, we may say that God also intends to connect us with the whole creation, of which we are a part.
Finally, if as the First Letter of John says, “God is love” (4:8), this love is shared among the three persons of the Trinity. St. Augustine of Hippo taught that in the Trinity you have three equally necessary things in the act of loving—the one who is the lover, the one being loved, and the love itself. He does not immediately attempt to identify which member of the Godhead is the Lover, the Beloved, or the Loving because he wanted to emphasize the unity and equality of all three members of the Godhead. But since he wanted to carry on the tradition he inherited from the East of the Father being Fons Divinitas (the “fountainhead of deity”), he identified the Father as the Lover, the Son as the Beloved (as the Scriptures often presents Him, e.g. Eph. 1:6: which he freely bestowed upon us in the beloved one), and the Spirit as Love.
The love that God is is also extended to God’s creation, including God’s human creatures. We have the capacity to love one another, no matter how marred it is, because love is of God. The Spirit who binds the Father and the Son in love also binds us to God in faith, hope, and love.
This is what the Trinity is about in a brief answer. Theologians can write whole treatises on this. But the basics of the Trinitarian faith are affirmed in the Creeds of the Church: the Apostles’, Nicene, and so-called Athanasian. We don’t profess the creeds because they “explain” our core doctrines, but because they affirm the mystery of faith.
This diagram represents the clear teaching of the Athanasian Creed. Each person of the Trinity is unique, yet they are all the one God. This is not an “explanation” but an affirmation of what we see revealed in Scripture and have experienced in the life of faith.
Pastor Frank Senn