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God in 3 persons – The Trinity

Question 5 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, one of the foundational documents of the Reformed faith, asks, “Are there more Gods than one?”  The response: “There is but One only, the living and true God.” And yet, the answer to the very next question of the WSC states: “There are three persons in the one God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  These three are one God.” (Italics are mine.)  One God, but three persons:  Have you ever considered how crazy this sounds?  This is certainly a mystery.

Consider the paradox of Genesis 1:26 and Deuteronomy 6:4.  In Genesis we read, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” (1:26). Three times in that verse God uses the plural when speaking about himself!  Flip over to Deuteronomy 6:4, a passage often referred to as the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” You have plural on the one hand and then an explicit statement that there is only one God on the other. How exactly does that work?

Though it is a mystery, it is also the clear teaching of Scripture. Matthew 28:19 teaches us to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” All three are given equal billing. The catechism says that they are “the same in substance and equal in power in glory.” God is three distinct persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – yet they are the same God.

We call this concept the Trinity, and this is what the Apostles’ Creed is referring to in its three-part division addressing the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Yet, this idea of Trinity took time to be understood by the early church. The church had to wrestle through complex issues such as the nature of the relationship between the Father and Jesus. Did the Father adopt the man Jesus, thus elevating him to the status of God? Is it more of a case that there is only one God, but that in different points in history, he goes by three different names?

The answer to both of the above questions is no, but it does highlight the challenge of understanding how Father, Son and Holy Spirit relate to one another.  Near the end of the second century, Tertullian coined the phrase, Trinity, to highlight both the “3-ness” and the “1-ness” of God. We believe in one God. Trinity is our way of understanding how three persons can be that one God. In theological language, we say that God is one essence, but three persons. While the whole concept still remains mostly a mystery, we can, with the old hymn writer, declare, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

Interact: Have you ever wrestled through the doctrine of the Trinity?

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