Category Archives: Trinity

Does Matthew 3:16-17 Support Polytheism?

The doctrine of the Trinity simply states that God consists of three persons in one essence. The three persons are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Matthew 3:16-17, all three are present at the same time and in the same place. So, do these verses support the doctrine of the Trinity or do they instead point to tritheism, the idea that there are three distinct and separate gods (the position of Mormons)?

Michael Wilkins, writing in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), argues that tritheism is not supported by the totality of the biblical witness.

At this early date of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew is only hinting at what will later be made clearer in his Gospel and in the rest of the NT— that there is one God, but within that oneness of essence there are three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Tritheism is certainly not a biblical option. The OT repeatedly affirms that there is but one God: ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One’ (Deut 6: 4), and both Jesus and the apostles repeat this truth (Mark 12: 29; 1 Cor 8: 4, 6). Likewise, Jesus will emphasize the divine nature of Father, Son, and Spirit, and Matthew will begin pointing to this stupendous truth.

As Morris states, ‘Matthew has certain trinitarian interest’ (Morris 1992, 68). Matthew concludes his Gospel with another trinitarian allusion in Jesus’ instruction that new disciples are to be baptized in the singular name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (28: 19). This is the oneness of God in three personal distinctions.

Matthew lays out a clear picture of Jesus’ deity by drawing upon OT prophecies. Prior to the incarnation, the strong divine language of some of the prophecies could not be adequately understood, leading to diverse views concerning the nature of the Messiah (see Kaiser 1995). But for Matthew, the reality of the incarnation now makes clear God’s revelation through the prophets: Jesus is God the Son, who is in vital relationship with his Father God, in the power of the Spirit of God. That all three members of the godhead share the same essence does not lead to an expectation that they cannot be present and active in the same scene. If they could not simultaneously participate in a scene such as this, they would in fact not be three persons.

Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes add in When Cultists Ask:

Matthew 3:16–17 supports the doctrine of the Trinity, though in itself it does not prove the doctrine. Trinitarians base their understanding of the nature of God on the accumulative evidence of the whole of Scripture. Taken by itself, all that the passage proves directly is that there are three different persons in the Godhead. It does not show that these three persons all share one and the same divine essence. . . .

Scripture taken as a whole yields the doctrine of the Trinity that is based on three lines of biblical evidence: (1) evidence that there is only one true God; (2) evidence that there are three Persons who are recognized as God; and (3) evidence for three-in-oneness within the Godhead. Scripture uniformly teaches that there is only one God (Deut. 6:4; 32:39; 2 Sam. 7:22; Ps. 86:10; Isa. 44:6; John 5:44; 17:3; Rom. 3:29–30; 16:27; 1 Cor. 8:4; Gal. 3:20; Eph. 4:6; 1 Thess. 1:9; 1 Tim. 1:17; 2:5; James 2:19; 1 John 5:20–21; Jude 25). Yet Scripture also calls three persons God—the Father (1 Peter 1:2), the Son (John 20:28; Heb. 1:8), and the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3–4). Scripture also indicates three-in-oneness in the Godhead (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14). The accumulative evidence of the whole of Scripture indicates that God is a Trinity.

Were the Doctrines of the Trinity and the Dual Nature of Christ invented in the 4th and 5th Centuries?

Post Author: Darrell

(This post originally appeared on Darrell’s Thoughts and Reflections and is being reposted here for the benefit of TQA readers.)

One of the charges I often hear leveled against Christianity today is that both the Doctrines of the Trinity and the Dual Nature of Christ were “invented” by the Church in the fourth and fifth centuries, during the Ecumenical Councils.  Proponents of these charges claim that the Church prior to the Ecumenical Councils believed neither in the Trinity, nor in the Dual Nature of Christ.  I freely admit that the language by which the Church codified these doctrines was fortified in the Ecumenical Councils.  However, I believe those who charge that the Church invented the doctrines themselves in the Councils and that the Church prior to the Councils did not hold to them are gravely mistaken.

One of the earliest Church Fathers to articulate a basic understanding of the Trinity and the Dual Nature of Christ is Saint Ignatius.  Saint Ignatius was the third Bishop of Antioch, serving from 70 AD to 107 AD.  He was a disciple of the Apostle John, and Church Tradition teaches that he was the child Christ held in His arms when He said, in Matthew 18:3, “. . . unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Shortly after the turn of the second century, Saint Ignatius wrote several Epistles while in captivity on the road traveling to his martyrdom.  Seven of these epistles have survived to our day.  In the seventh chapter of his Epistle to the Ephesians, he says:

But our Physician is the only true God, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son.  We have also as a Physician the Lord our God, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began, but who afterwards became also man, of Mary the virgin. For “the Word was made flesh.”  Being incorporeal, He was in a body; being impassible, He was in a passible body; being immortal, He was in a mortal body; being life, He became subject to corruption, that He might free our souls from death and corruption, and heal them, and might restore them to health, when they were diseased with ungodliness and wicked lusts.

There are several aspects of this passage which demonstrate that Saint Ignatius held beliefs consistent with the Doctrines of the Trinity and the Dual Nature of Christ.  First, he refers to two separate Persons, God the Father and Jesus Christ, yet he calls both of them God.  This is completely consistent with Nicene Theology, which teaches that both the Father and the Son are God by nature/essence.  The Nicene Creed calls Christ “true God of true God”, saying He is “of one essence with the Father” as God.  Had Ignatius been an Arian or had he held to a non-Trinitarian Doctrine that teaches Christ to be something less than or other than God, He would not have referred to Him as God.

Second, Ignatius refers to Jesus Christ as begotten “before time began”.  This is almost word for word identical to the Nicene Creed, which says, “I believe in. . . one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. . .”  Some today claim that the Early Church believed Christ’s being ”begotten” of the Father was in relation to His birth from Mary (specifically, this is an LDS claim).  However, Ignatius’ comment here demonstrates that the Early Church’s understanding of Christ’s nature as “only-begotten” was a relationship with the Father that was “before time began” and has nothing to do with His earthly incarnation.  It is interesting to note that the Greek word translated as “only-begotten” both here and in the New Testament is ”monogenes”.  Monogenes literally means “one of a kind,” and to the Church Fathers it connoted Christ being of the same nature as the Father. . . something that was entirely unique to Him.

In addition to calling Christ God and claiming Him to be the “only-begotten” of the Father “before time began”, Ignatius tells us that “afterwards” Christ “became man”.  Ignatius then goes on to point out some aspects that Christ’s becoming man added to His nature.  He says that although Christ was incorporeal, He was in a body; although He was impassible, He was in a passible body; although He was immortal, He was in a mortal body;  although He was life, He became subject to corruption.  These differing aspects of Christ’s nature, aspects that are polar opposites to one another, speak to Christ having two natures, one as God and one as man, and demonstrate that Saint Ignatius understood Christ in this manner.  As God, Christ was incorporeal, impassible, immortal, and life itself.   However, as man He was corporeal, passible, mortal, and subject to corruption.

Last, Ignatius explains that Christ took on our nature in order to free our souls from death and corruption, heal us, and restore us to health.  This speaks to the true reason for the Doctrines of the Trinity and Dual Nature of Christ.  Rather than being doctrines for doctrine’s sake, created as purely intellectual pieces of information to be discussed by dry theologians over coffee and tea, they are doctrines directly tied to our understanding of how Christ redeemed us.  He was the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, true God of true God.  Yet He chose to take upon Himself our nature, becoming man for our sakes, so that He could unite our nature to the Divine Nature in His Person, giving us a rebirth in Him.  Had He not been God and had He not taken on our nature, He would have been unable to redeem us.  The Church understood this from the earliest times, and as the writings of Saint Ignatius show us, it is not an understanding created in the fourth and fifth centuries.  It is Apostolic Doctrine that has been handed down to us and is a product of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church.

. . . Of One Essence With The Father?

Post Author: Darrell

(This post originally appeared on Darrell’s Thoughts and Reflections on Aug. 5, 2013 and is being reposted here for Tough Questions Answered readers.)

I was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – aka The Mormon Church – for several years prior to converting to Christianity and becoming Orthodox.  One of the significant gulfs between Mormon and Christian theology involves the Doctrine of the Trinity as codified at Nicea in 325 AD.  Traditional Christians affirm the Doctrine of the Trinity, believing it to be the correct understanding of the Godhead, while Mormons repudiate it.  The Church to which I belong – The Eastern Orthodox Church – holds the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed to be The Symbol of our Faith.  It is the standard confession of every Orthodox Christian, being recited at ones baptism and reaffirmed every week before Holy Communion in the Divine Liturgy.

One of the major sticking points of the Trinitarian confession for the Mormon Church is the declaration that the three Persons of the Holy Trinity – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are one in Essence or Nature.  The Nicene Creed says, in part:

“We believe . . . in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father. . . “

Considering this aspect of the Doctrine of the Trinity, in the October 2007 General Conference, LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said:

“Our first and foremost article of faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is ‘We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.’ . . I think it is accurate to say we believe They are one in every significant and eternal aspect imaginable except believing Them to be three persons combined in one substance. . .”

In the April 1995 General Conference, LDS Apostle Dallin H. Oaks spoke even more directly when he declared that the rejection of the understanding of God contained in the historic Christian Creeds is “one of the distinguishing features of the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. . .”

Over the last few years, I have spoken to several Mormons regarding their Church’s rejection of this aspect of Trinitarian Theology.  One of the things I have discovered is that very few of them seem to understand what we mean when we declare the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one in essence.  Some believe it means that the three are one person with three separate personalities, others believe it means that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are separate expressions of God, and still others say rather directly that they have no idea what it means, they just believe it to be false.

In my opinion, one of the best ways to understand what the Nicene Creed means by “one in essence” is to look to the writings of those in the early Church.  The Third Ecumenical Council of the Church met at Ephesus in 431 AD to address the Nestorian Heresy.  After the Council’s completion John of Antioch wrote a letter to Saint Cyril of Alexandria, seeking to restore greater communion within the Church.  In this letter, he gives great insight into the Church’s understanding of what is means to declare Christ to be of one essence, or consubstantial, with the Father.  It says, in part:

“We confess, therefore, our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, perfect God, and perfect man of a reasonable soul and flesh consisting; begotten before the ages of the Father according to His divinity, and in the last days, for us and for our salvation, [was born] of the Virgin Mary according to His humanity; that He is consubstantial with the Father according to divinity and consubstantial with us according to humanity, for in Him there is a perfect unity of two natures. [emphasis mine]”

The Early Church Fathers believed that Christ was consubstantial, or one in essence, with us as well as the Father.  In fact, this understanding was central to the Church’s soteriology, the belief being that it was through becoming consubstantial with humanity in the incarnation that Christ redeemed the human nature, uniting it to God through His Person.

So this leads to the question, if Christ is one in essence with humanity as man in the same way that He is one in essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit as God, how are we to understand this oneness in essence?  How is Christ “one with humanity” in essence?  We can say for sure that He is not one with us by being an “expression” of humanity or by being a “personality” of humanity.  Our human experience shows us otherwise.  The simple answer is that He is one with us because He shares our human nature.  You, me, Christ, and all the rest of us are human.  We each share in the oneness of human nature or essence, but we still remain separate persons within the human species.

This is how we are to understand the Oneness of the Holy Trinity.  Each of the Persons of the Trinity are separate individuals.  There exists a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit.  However, each of the members of the Holy Trinity are God, and they are united in essence by each of them being fully God.  Christ is unique among the members of the Holy Trinity in that He became one with humanity in the incarnation – becoming one in essence with us.  However, He did not lose any of His God Nature in this process.  He still remains fully God.

One thing to bear in mind is that the fall caused an unnatural division in the human nature.  As a result, our oneness in essence is broken.  Part of Christ’s mission to save humanity was to heal this brokenness by recapitulating our nature, bringing it back into Communion with God.  However, the Oneness of the Holy Trinity is perfect.  It has never suffered a fall and, as a result, the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit transcends our understanding in a rather profound and significant manner.

Surprisingly, when I have shared this understanding with Mormons, I have often found them to have no issues with it.  When they are able to see that holding the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one in essence does not do away with them being separate Persons, their points of disagreement seem to fade into the background.  Don’t get me wrong, there are still several points of disagreement between Mormon and Orthodox Theology, and those points are quite significant and profound.  However, this particular point may be one that is more a product of misunderstanding than true substance (no pun intended 🙂  ).

What Were They Arguing About at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In A.D. 325, an ecumenical council of Christian bishops gathered to discuss a theological issue that was tearing apart the unity of the church. A common misconception about this council was that the argument was over whether Jesus was God or man. In fact, this idea has become so popular that one of my skeptical friends, who usually knows his stuff, made this mistake recently in a discussion we were having.

He said, in effect, that the church was arguing about whether Jesus was a man or God all the way up to and including the Council of Nicaea. This view, however, is completely false.

The two major positions presented at the council were proposed by Arius and Athanasius. Arius believed that Jesus was created by God the Father in eternity, but that he did not share eternality with the Father. Athanasius believed that Jesus and the Father both existed from eternity, that one never existed without the other.

Please note that the issue was not about whether Jesus was merely a man or God, but what kind of God Jesus was. Both parties agreed he was divine, that he was much more than a mere man, but they disagreed about how he was divine.

The council sided with Athanasius against Arius, declaring that Jesus always existed along with the Father. The debate about Arianism, however, did not subside until the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381 provided further clarification of the terms used at Nicaea and united the church around its understanding of the nature of Christ.

Why Is the Trinity Important?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Because it is the best synthesis of all biblical data on the nature of God.  All other views deny or ignore major swaths of Scripture.

For example, on one of our blog posts, there is a thread where Darrell presented numerous passages to a Mormon about the oneness and unity of God.  Instead of dealing with these passages the Mormon writer chose to ignore the passages and continuously point out other passages in the Bible that stress the plurality of God.

In Mormon theology, there are countless gods, and all human beings may one day become gods themselves.  So, of course, Mormons have to dodge and duck all of the passages in the Bible that speak on the oneness of God.  They ignore biblical data in order to accommodate their theology.  Their theology is more important than the data in the Bible.

The Trinity realizes a unity and plurality in God that makes sense of all the biblical data.  There are three persons (plurality) in one nature (unity).

All of the passages that emphasize the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are recognized.  All of the passages that recognize the unity of God are recognized.  Both of these truths are held, and neither is denied.

Is your theology more important than what the Bible actually says?

Is the Trinity Biblical?

Many non-Christian groups who accept some form of the New Testament – Muslims, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses – claim that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is false.  One of the arguments often used is that the concept of the Trinity cannot be found in Scripture, so the doctrine cannot be true.

This argument, however, will not fly.  The argument for the tri-unity of God is straightforward and well grounded in the biblical text.

The first premise of the argument is that God is one.  We know this from verses like Deut. 6:4 and 1 Cor. 8:4.

The second premise is that three persons – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are all called God

Concerning the Father, we read a verses such as John 6:27 and Rom. 1:7

Concerning the Son, we read a verse such as John 8:58, where Jesus uses an Old Testament name of God, “I am,” to refer to Himself.  We also read of instances where Jesus does things that only God would do, such as forgiving someone’s sins in Mark 2:5-7

Concerning the Holy Spirit, we read a verse like Acts 5:3-4, where the Holy Spirit is called God.

Therefore, if the Bible teaches that God is one (and it does) and the Bible teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God (and it does), then the doctrine of the Trinity is established.  There are three persons in one God.  This is what Christians affirm and non-Christians deny.  

Now I have to quickly state that there are far more verses than the ones I mentioned above that establish the doctrine of the Trinity.  I am only providing a tiny sampling in order to refute the claim that the Trinity is not based on the Bible.  It is biblical, but please don’t think that my evidence above is exhaustive.  If you want to dig deeper, then this study of the Trinity should more than satisfy you.