Gregory Nazianzus (330–389) once wrote in reference to his contemplation of the triune God: “I cannot think of the One without being quickly encircled by the splendor of the Three; nor can I discern the Three without being immediately carried back to the One…. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.”
Our great God has condescended to reveal Himself to His creatures in His Word. He has drawn aside the veil of eternity and allowed His people the tremendous privilege of contemplating His eternal glory. And the highest revelation God has given of His nature and being is found in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and in the coming of the Holy Spirit—the chief means of revealing the divine truth of the Trinity. Christians believe firmly that within the one being that is God, there exist eternally three co-equal and co-eternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
We dare not handle these words lightly, for they carry great weight and have crushed many a person who sought to trifle with God’s self-revelation. Each word communicates a vital truth drawn from the serious study of, and reflection upon, the inspired Scriptures. The Trinity is first and foremost a doctrine of revelation, flowing from the words of Scripture. It does not find its origin in ecclesiastical tradition, no matter how much later conflict would call for definition.
Trinitarians are monotheists. We believe mere is one true being of God that is shared fully and completely by three divine persons. When we speak of God’s being, we are trying, in human language, to refer to that which makes God God. His being is unique. The divine being differentiates God from all that He has created.
Being and person are not synonymous. Being is what makes something what it is, and person is what makes someone who he is. Of course, we must be careful to avoid (as much as is possible) reading human categories and ideas into our use of these terms. This is why we define things carefully. We are not saying that God is one being and three beings, or one person and three persons. Since being and person are differentiated, we are not violating common sense or formal logic when we say God’s one unique being is shared by three persons.
Though some might find the emphasis strange, we insist that God’s being is simple rather than complex. In saying this, we are not referring to the difficulty of the subject, but to the nature of God’s being. His being is simple in that it is not made up of different “parts” or “substances.” Further, it is indivisible just because it is simple in this way. This may not seem like a very important observation, but it is. If God’s being were complex, we would have to consider the relationship of the different “parts” of that being, and whether one is more important or definitional than another. We also would have to struggle with knowing whether one part was “before” another. Naturally, this complexity would introduce great difficulties when we would come to the matter of the relationship of the divine persons.
But the truth is that the simple, infinite, unlimited, utterly unique being of God, existing outside the realm of time, is shared fully by three eternal, co-equal divine persons: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Since the one being of God cannot be divided into parts, then each person must share fully in that divine being. There can be no essential subordination of one person to another in the sense of one having “more” of the divine being than another. God’s being is not divided up into thirds, with each person sharing only a portion of the fullness of deity. Such not only would destroy the divine being, but would render each person less than fully divine.
But should one wonder how the divine being can be shared fully by three co-equal yet distinct persons, the answer calls us beyond our limits. No limitation can be placed upon God’s being, either spatially or temporally. His being is infinite, and hence can be shared fully by the three persons.
Again, this may seem an unnecessary observation, but many of the oldest heresies in church history derive from a misunderstanding of it. Every theology that makes the Son and the Spirit less than the Father in some way denies the equal participation of the three persons in the one divine being. Rank denials of the deity of Christ, of course, preclude any divine participation at all. Unitarians fall into this error when they deny that God’s being can be shared. But more subtle attacks upon the equality of the persons of the Trinity also may deny the equal participation of each of the divine persons in the divine being. The Son may be seen as “deity,” but to a lesser extent or degree than the Father, and the Spirit even less than the Father or the Son. All of these concepts require God’s being to be divisible in some form so that the participation of each divine person can be diminished and subordination introduced.
In light of the many denials of the Trinity, it is useful to remember that the negation of Trinitarianism is not monotheism. Many unitarians, whether they be Muslims or oneness Pentecostals, argue that Trinitarianism is wrong because the Bible is monotheistic. This involves a confusion of categories. The negation of Trinitarianism is unitarianism. The negation of monotheism is polytheism. Trinitarianism is a form of monotheism that fully affirms the unity of God’s being but likewise recognizes the existence of the divine persons and their full and equal participation in the divine being.
At times, the fact that believers are called upon to give a forceful defense of the truth of God’s triune nature militates against the proper spirit in which these truths are to be held. These truths are to inspire awe, reverence, devotion, and service. They are never to be looked upon as mere articles of debate, factoids devoid of application to godly worship.
At the same time, those who eschew the study of theology are robbed of the richness of worship based upon truth. The words of Gregory, quoted above, can be understood only by those who seek to contemplate God’s revelation of Himself. To ask God to help us to understand what He has revealed so that we may worship aright is pleasing in His sight. God has never rebuked one who sought to reverently understand His truth.
But those who seek to go beyond what God has revealed must be reminded that there are limits God has set by His own sovereign design, and it is the utmost in arrogance to seek to peer into the secrets God has withheld from His creatures. When our best efforts to understand and comprehend meet the limitation of God’s revelation in Scripture, we must bow to that which remains shrouded in mystery, acknowledging our creaturely finitude, reveling in His Godship.