The Trinity

by Francis J. Beckwith




I. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is part of every major creed in the history of Christendom. It can be defined in the following way: In the nature of the one God there are three centers of consciousness, which we call persons, and these three are equal. Though the term "trinity" is not found in the Bible, the doctrine is nevertheless taught there. "Trinity " is merely the term employed by theologians and church historians in order to describe the phenomena of God they find in the Bible.

The doctrine of the Trinity is arrived at in much the same way as a scientific theory. A scientific theory, for the most part, is a reasoned explanation of observed (or unobserved, in some cases) phenomena in the natural world. Analogously, the doctrine of the Trinity is a reasoned explanation of what we observe to be the phenomena of God in the Bible. Church fathers, councils, denominations, etc. have been so overwhelmed with the evidence for the trinity in the scripture that there has been a universal creedal acknowledgement in church history. The argument behind the doctrine can be put this way:

  Premise 1:   The Bible teaches that there is only one God.

  Premise 2:   The Bible teaches that there are three distinct persons
               called God, known as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

  Conclusion:  So, the three persons - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - 
               are the one God.

Let us take a look at how each premise is justified in the New Testament.


A. Premise #1: There is only one God

This premise is almost universally accepted by those who claim to be Christians. For this reason, it should suffice to simply cite I Timothy 2:5, which reads: "For there is only one God, and there is only mediator between God and mankind, himself a man, Christ Jesus...."

B. Premise #2: There are Three Persons called God.


These three passages, when carefully compared and with one another, clearly affirm the deity of Christ. The last passage, Isaiah 44:34, states that Jehovah *alone* made all things. The first and second passages both affirm that all things were made through Christ. Therefore, if Jehovah *alone* made all things, and all things were made through Christ, it logically follows that Christ is in fact Jehovah God. The text of Scripture, and the force of logic, leaves us with no other option.

The Apostle John calls both God and Jesus *the First and the Last* and *the Alpha and the Omega* (Rev. 1:18,17;22:13), and hence equates Jesus with God. Other passages of the New Testament which implicitly or explicitly affirm Christ's deity include Mark 2:5-7, John 20:28-29, John 1:1-14, and Collosians 2:9.

In reply to many of these passages, those who accept the authority of Scripture and yet deny the deity of Christ, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Way International, cite passages in the Bible which apparently conflict with Christ's deity, e.g., those which seem to say that Jesus does not possess the attributes of God (e.g., Luke 18:18,19; John 14:28; I Cor. 11:3, 15:28; Collosians 1:15).

The use of these passages rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of Christ's incarnation. When God became man in Christ Jesus God the Son did not "give up" his divine attributes, but simply took on a human nature and denied his human mind access to his divine mind. Consequently, when he said he did not know something he was speaking truly since in the incarnation he willingly gave up access to omniscience, though he remained omniscient, since God cannot give up any of his attributes and still remain God. Therefore, when Jesus said "the Father is Greater than I" (John 14:28), he was referring to his current incarnate position in relation to the first person of the Trinity. This also counts against Oneness, because to say that the "Father" is greater than "I" is to imply two different persons. If they were the same person, one could not be greater than the other; they would be equal. The incarnation, since it involves the Son taking on human nature and thus becoming positionally inferior to the Father, explains how the Father can be greater than the Son and yet the Father and Son share the same nature of deity. The Oneness view can't do that, and the JW view cannot explain the deity-affirming passages. It seems that the traditional view does the trick rather nicely. That is why the church fathers, the church councils, and the three major branches of Christendom have seen the doctrine of the Trinity and the Son's Deity as a natural result of a plain reading of the Biblical text.


The deity of the Holy Spirit has been questioned by many cultic groups. For example, the Jehovah's Witnesses state that the term "Holy Spirit" merely refers to the "invisible active force of the Almighty God that moves his servants to do his will" ("Let God Be True," rev. [1952], 89). In other words, the Holy Spirit is not only not deity, he is also *not a person*; it is an impersonal force which God actively employs. That is, for the JW's, the "Holy Spirit" is to God what the left-hook is to fictional Rocky Balboa: an impersonal "it" directed by a personal being.

This being the case, it is necessary that we first show that the Bible teaches the personhood of the Holy Spirit. A sufficient condition for being a person is that he-she be a "self-conscious or rational being" (*Random House Dictionary*, 1075). Self-consciousness entails attributes such as knowing, thinking, and communicating. The following passages clearly show that the Holy Spirit is considered a person in Holy Scripture:

In both these passages the Holy Spirit is described as acting in very way a self-conscious person acts: He communicates, thinks, knows, and is described in personal pronouns (i.e., "he" and "I").

Furthermore, there are several other passages that portray the Holy Spirit as exhibiting attributes that are exclusive of personhood. For example, the Holy Spirit is described as consoling (Acts 9:31), helping us in our weakness (Rom 8:26), forbidding (Acts 16:6,7), and able to be lied to (Acts 5:3). Moreover, the Holy Spirit can be grieved (Eph. 4:30) and insulted (Heb. 10:29), and is said to possess a will (I Cor. 12:11).

The Bible also plainly teaches the *deity* of the Holy Spirit by attributing to him characteristics that are possessed only by God. For example, the Spirit is described as *Eternal*, having no beginning and no end (Heb 9:14). Moreover, he described as *Omniscient* (I Cor. 2:10,11), *Sovereign* (I Cor. 12:6,11), and *possessing the wrath of God* (Heb. 3:7-12). In addition, Jesus tells us that to sin against the Holy Spirit is to commit an *eternal* sin (Matt. 12:31,32).

In Acts 5:3-5, the Holy Spirit is clearly called God:

Peter is equating a lie to the Holy Spirit with lying to God. In other words, to lie to the Holy Spirit *is* to lie to God. And since one cannot lie to a force or to a non-personal object, this passage also teaches the personality of the Holy Spirit as well as his deity.


C. Conclusion: The Three Persons are the one God.

Let us review our argument for the Trinity. First, we showed that the Bible teaches that there is only one God. Second, we found that the Bible tells us that there are three persons who are called God. Hence, the inescapable conclusion: the three persons are the One God. Theologians have called this the Trinity.

To further buttress this argument, there are several places in the Bible in which the doctrine of the Trinity is clearly implied. For example, concerning *Christ's Resurrection* we are told that the Father raised Jesus from the dead (I Thess. 1:10), the Son raised Himself from the dead (John 2:19-22), and the Spirit raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 8:11). Yet, we are told in Acts 17:30,31 that *God raised Jesus from the dead*. Therefore, either the Bible contradicts itself or the three persons are the one God.

In *Christ's Great Commission* to preach the Gospel, he instructs his disciples to "go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations; baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit..." (Matt 28:19). It is important to note that the Greek word "name," used in this verse, is singular (homonos). It does *not* say, "in the *names* of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," but rather, it says, "in the *name*...." In other words, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three distinct *persons*, have only one name. This clearly implies the Triune nature of God. Furthermore, the Trinity is revealed at *Christ's incarnation* (Luke 1:35) and *baptism* (Matt 3:16,17), in the *Apostolic benediction* (II Cor 13:13), and in *Christ's own teachings* (John 14:26; 15:26).



In the first four parts of this series we concluded that (1) the Bible teaches that there is only one God by nature, and (2) the Bible teaches that there are three persons who are God. From those two premises we drew the inference that the three persons - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - are the one God. We also concluded that the three are distinct persons, not simply three different functions of one person.

But according to the "Jesus Only" sect (a.k.a "Oneness Pentecostalism,"), the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not distinct persons who share the same nature and being, but rather, they are the same person. Each title--"Father," "Son," and "Holy Spirit"--represents a different mode by which God, a single person, manifests Himself, just as "uncle," "husband," and "brother" each represents a different mode by which Frank Beckwith (FB), a single human person, manifests himself. This is why the ancient heresy which Oneness embraces is called "modalism."

Consequently, anything true of Frank Beckwith uncle (FBu) must be true of Frank Beckwith husband (FBh) and Frank Beckwith brother (FBb). That is to say, it can *not* be the case that FBu is married to Frankie Rozelle Dickerson Beckwith (yes, my wife's name is Frankie) while FBh is not. It can *not* be the case that FBh hit 9 3-pt. jumpshots in a city league basketball game in February 1993 while FBb did not. What is true of FBu, as a person, must be true of FBh and FBb if they are all the same person. Certainly it is true that the relationships that make u, h, and b distinct are different, but the *person* to which these titles apply must possess all the same properties regardless of in what role he is functioning (that is, whether brother, husband, or uncle). That is, everything that is true of the Frank Beckwith who is the uncle of Dean James Beckwith and Dylan Patrick Beckwith is true of the Frank Beckwith who is married to Frankie R.D. Beckwith and who is the brother of Dr. James Beckwith and Patrick Beckwith.

Thus, in order for modalism (or "Oneness") to be correct there *must be nothing true of one "mode" which is not true of another "mode"*. But if there is just one thing true of one which is not true of another, then *they cannot be the same person* and modalism is false.

Understand the monumental task of the Oneness apologist: he must overturn our common sense intuition that when the Bible speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the Bible is in fact speaking of three persons rather than one. That is to say, on the face of it, it would appear that a plain reading of the text clearly presents three distinct persons, since we have numerous verses that indicate communication and relationship between persons, such as when Jesus prayed to his Father and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. In other words, since the common sense plain reading of the text indicates three distinct persons, the burden of proof is without a doubt on the Oneness person to show the common sense plain reading is false. The Trinitarian does not have the burden of proof.

Consider the following:

(1) Jesus of Nazareth is called the one and only mediator between God and man (I Tim 2:5; Heb 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). This would mean that God the Son has a property - mediatorship - which is possessed by neither God the Father nor God the Holy Spirit, since the text is saying he is the ONLY mediator *between* humanity and the Godhead.

(2) "As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, `This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.'" (Matt. 3:16-17). The Son has the property of "being the Son loved by the Father" but not the property of "being the Father who loves the Son." The Spirit has neither property. Thus, we have in this verse a clear distinction between the persons of the Trinity.

(3) "`No one knows, however, when that day and hour will come - neither the angels in heaven nor the Son; the Father alone knows.'" (Matt. 24:36). Here the Son has a property (not knowing the day or hour of his second coming) which the Father does not. Imagine if I said, "Only Frank Beckwith as an uncle knows what he's getting from his wife for Christmas. Frank Beckwith as a brother does not know what he's getting from his wife for Christmas." You would have to infer from this that there must two Frank Beckwiths. If not, then it is logically incoherent.

(4) "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit..." (Matt. 28:19). In the Greek, tou ("the") is used for each title, and each is separated by kai ("and"). This helps support the view that in this text three distinct individual persons are being spoken of:

If the Greek text had been referring to only one person, it would have most likely read: or, I don't want to make too much of grammatical constructions, but it seems that because of the use of both the article and its own conjunction, it is highly unlikely that the author was talking about only one person (on this, see Bruce Tucker, TWISTING THE TRUTH: RECOGNIZING HOW CULT GROUPS SUBTLY DISTORT BASIC CHRISTIAN DOCTRINES (Bethany House, 1987)).

If two things have every property in common, then they are one thing (e.g., Norma Jean Baker and Marilyn Monroe, Casius Clay and Muhammed Ali). But if there is *only one property that is not the same*, then they are separate persons. This is called the indiscernibility of identicals (II), or in symbolic form:

(x) (y) [(y=x)-->(P)(Px<-->Py)]

That is, for any entities x and y, if x and y are the same thing, then any property P, P is true of x if and only if P is true of y. If x is the Son and y is the Father, then if Oneness is true, x must be identical to y. On the other hand, if something is true of the Son which is not true of the Father, then the Son is not identical to the Father and Oneness if false. It is a principle of sound reasoning which is the basis for all thought. But we have seen that there are things true of the Son which are not true of the Father and there are things true of the Spirit which are not true of either the Father or the Son.

Suppose the Oneness person denies the applicability of logic to God. But, of course, he can't, because this very claim *presupposes* logic. That is, the Oneness apologist is saying "It cannot be the case that we can apply logic to God," which means that God cannot both be "a being to which logic applies" and "a being to which logic does not apply." So the Oneness person assumes the most fundamental principle of logic--the law of non-contradiction--in his denial of logic. Also, Oneness itself as a theory of the Godhead presupposes a number of logical virtues which its proponnents think it exemplifies in comparison to Trinitarianism: coherency, simplicity, consistency with the biblical text, etc.

Of course, much more can be said critiquing the Oneness view of God. There are many verses Oneness apologists use in order to prove their case. I simply do not have the time to go over them. My purpose was to present a positive case for the traditional doctrine of the Trinity and why church history has supported this doctrine. Scholarly responses to oneness can be found in Gregory Boyd's ONENESS PENTECOSTALISM AND THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY (Baker Books, 1992) and E. Calvin Beisner's forthcoming book "JESUS ONLY" AND ONENESS PENTECOSTALISM (Zondervan, 1995), published as part of Zondervan's series of small books on cults.

I hope that this series has been helpful to you.

Francis J. Beckwith, Ph.D., Dept. of Philosophy, Univ. of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Apologetics, Simon Greenleaf University (Anaheim, CA)

[Originally published at ICLnet in 1996. Reproduced on Answering Islam with permission from the author after the article disappeared from the original site.]

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