Muslims, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormans say yes. They insist that the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity is the polytheism of Greek and Roman mythologies. So, is this true? Or is believing in a 3-in-1 God foundational to biblical faith?
Anti-Trinity groups insist that when we speak about God as existing in three Persons, we are in reality establishing three Gods. They rightly declare that the word “trinity” never appears in the sacred Scriptures. But then they go on to say that this idea of 3-in-1 was transplanted into Christianity from Greek and Roman paganism.
Could it be possible that they are right? Is there any evidence that this teaching had its beginning in paganism? Is the doctrine of a 3-in-1 God truly biblical?
How Important is the Teaching of Three in One?
Those who oppose the teaching of the Trinity make really serious claims against our Christian doctrine. They vehemently insist that anyone who believes in a 3-in-1 God violates the first commandment of Moses in which the Lord says “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.” (Ex. 20:2-3
However, for many centuries now church theologians have also made very serious claims in support of the Trinity. This doctrine, according to the church fathers, is not a matter of pagan philosophy. It is not polytheistic. It is not a matter of semantics. That the one true and Most High God exists in three distinct Persons is, according to church theologians, a biblical teaching of the greatest importance.
Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox branches of the church all agree that the New Testament teaching of a 3-in-1 God is a doctrine firmly grounded in Scripture not in philosophy. Together, they all agree that the Trinity shows us the extent to which God’s own existence is rooted in the joys of eternal relationship. The three in oneness of God shows us the eternal reality of His love and the enormous price that God paid in giving His Son as a sacrifice for our sin. A 3-in-1 God gives us the example of one who exists not merely as one, but in the inexpressible joy and creativity of a perfectly shared relationship. Unlike the many warring gods of pagan religions, and unlike our own history of broken relationships, this God, our God, is always one in mind, heart and action.
All major branches of Christendom will also agree that a 3-in-1 God is consistent with the trail of Old Testament evidence for the same doctrine. The Old Testament gives very strong implications that though God is one, He is not a solitary Being. Old Testament writers often use language that makes us think of a plurality within this unity.
For instance, the word translated “God” some 2,570 times in the Old Testament is Elohim, which is a plural term. In all except five times, it clearly refers to the one God who is Creator, Sustainer, and Master of ALL things.
God sometimes used a plural pronoun when speaking of Himself. For instance, He said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). Later, after Adam and Even had eaten from the forbidden tree, God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil.” (Gen. 3:22)
When Moses declared that God is one, he used the same word he had used to describe the “one flesh” relationship of a man and his wife (Gen. 2:24). The word “one” in Deuteronomy 6:4 definitely allows for the idea of a plurality of Persons within the unity of the Godhead.
Both Testaments, give us reason to believe that “one” can be more than one. That this is beyond our human ability to completely understand is not reason for us to reject it, but for us to try to understand as much as we can of what God has revealed to us and not ignore it.
What is the Relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit?
There have been some Christians that have tried to explain the three in oneness of God by suggesting that God has three different ways of revealing Himself to us. Sometimes He portrays Himself as Father, sometimes as Son, and sometimes as the Holy Spirit.
The explanation of one God in three different roles might carry a little more weight if it were not for the evidence for plurality within oneness that we have already considered here. Since the Old Testament does reveal a God who says, Let Us create man in Our image,” it’s much easier for us to understand the sense of relationship, submission, love, and loyalty that the Scriptures describe as existing between the Father, Son, and Spirit.
The New Testament does not reveal these three Persons to us separately, but in a very profound sense of unity. It represents all three in a relationship of oneness and love for one another and for us as well.
The New Testament relationship between Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit disproves the conclusion that the Father alone should be thought of as the only True and Most High God. While it is understandable that some would want to try to protect the oneness of God by seeing the Son and the Spirit as lesser beings or forces, this kind of conclusion simply is not a valid one.
The Old Testament makes it very clear that the one true God of the Bible is a jealous God. He is a God who, according to Isaiah, will not give His glory to another. (Is. 48:9-12)
The God of the New Testament, however, links His very own name in the threefold designation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just as important, the New Testament also shows us that the Father makes our relationship to Him dependent on our relationship to the Son, and our relationship to the Son is dependent on our relationship with the Holy Spirit. This God then certainly shares His glory among three Persons, who in turn offer Their love to all who will accept the love of the Father, Son and Spirit.
The Father as God
Among those who recognize the authority of the Bible, few if any will doubt the full deity of the Father. In many different ways, the Father is revealed as the personal God of creation. The Scriptures reveal God as the Father of the nation of Israel (Dt. 32:6; Isa. 1:2; Hos. 11:1; Mal. 2:10). Jesus called God His Father (Jn. 5:17-18) and taught us to pray “Our Father in heaven” (Mt. 6:9). He told us that we are to come to the Father in His name (Jn. 16:23). He declared that both He and His Father would soon send His disciples a divine Helper (Jn. 15:26).
It is very clear then from these verses that the Father is God. God is the Father. Paul referred to Him as the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3).
What is truly important about the Father’s revelation of Himself, however, is that He made our relationship to Him dependent on our relationship to His only Son.
The Son as God
The New Testament writers repeatedly refer to Jesus Christ as the Son of God. But what exactly does that title truly mean?
Jehovah’s Witnesses take this expression to mean that He was a son of God, much like angels and other human beings. They actually believe that Jesus is the archangel Michael in human form.
Present day Jews say Jesus was a great prophet and nothing more. Muslims point out that the Koran honors Jesus by teaching He was born without the agency of a human father and that He was a great prophet as well. But they say the Koran emphatically states in passage after passage that He was not a God’s son and this is the notion that has more in common with pagan mythologies in which “gods” fathered semi-divine children with human women, than with any true religion that truly comes from God.
The New Testament, however, teaches that Jesus Christ is the “only,” the unique Son of God (Jn. 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 Jn. 4:9). The Scriptures portray Jesus as sharing the glory of a once jealous God who, through Moses, insisted that no one deserved to be worshiped but God Himself. This God shares His love with angels and mortals. But with Christ the Son He shares His glory!
To see the extent to which the Son shares the glory with the Father all we have to do is read the words of Christ, the testimony of the apostles and the predictions given in the Old Testament by the prophets and of course the declarations of the church fathers.
The Words of Jesus
The four Gospels record many of the words Jesus spoke during His ministry on earth. Even if we didn’t believe in the inspiration of the New Testament, we would still have good reason to accept what they wrote to be accurate. We have very strong evidence that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written well before AD 70. And even though the Gospel of John was not produced until around AD 90, the evidence is very strong that it belongs to the apostle John, who was with Jesus through His entire earthly ministry. The apostles undoubtedly repeated the words of Jesus often as they started proclaiming the gospel. Jesus’ words tell us that He definitely claimed to be God.
In John 8:58 we see where Christ claims that He never had a beginning. Since only God is eternal, this is pretty much declaring He is a deity. To a group of very hostile religious leaders, He said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” See how He doesn’t say “Before Abraham was born, I was born.” Instead He says “Before Abraham came into being, I AM.” Abraham was born within the framework of time, Jesus declared that His own existence transcends time. He has always existed. He had no beginning.
The second statement made by Christ is when He calls Himself God, this can be found in John 10:30. While attending the feast of dedication at Jerusalem, He said, “I and My Father are one.” The religious leaders recognized that He was claiming deity when He made that statement. They started throwing stones at Him and said they were so because of “blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make yourself God” (Jn. 10:33). They completely understood our Lord’s words better than the present day Jehovah’s Witnesses do. They understood full well that He was saying. He was saying that He and the Father were one in the same essence. The Jews knew that Jesus had claimed deity for Himself.
In the New Testament, Jesus clearly saw Himself as the Son of God. He viewed Himself as deity.
The Testimony of the Apostles
The men responsible for writing the New Testament had no doubt at all about the deity of Jesus Christ. Some could even recall the day their friend Thomas saw the resurrected Christ and exclaimed, “My Lord and My God!” (Jn. 20:28). This was not a simple expression of surprise like, “Oh my God!” that we often hear today. No Jew in the first century would ever use God’s name in that manner. The apostles recalled full well that Jesus accepted this designation of deity.
When John, who was present on that occasion, opened his Gospel, he did so as follows:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1).
He went on to declare that this Word became a human being who reflected the glory of God. “And the Word was God.” This is so clear that just about all Bible students see it as a declaration that Jesus Christ is God! However, Jehovah’s Witnesses, refuse to see it that way and continue to disagree. They continue to argue that the last phrase in John 1:1 should read as this, “And the word was a god.” They will point out that the word God does not have the definite article. It does not read “And the Word was the God.”
They may be correct in this observation, however, they are wrong when they conclude that it does not ascribe deity to Jesus Christ. John had good reason for omitting the article here. If he had written, “And the Word was the God,” he would have denied the distinction between the Father and the Son. This was an error made by a man named Sabellius and rejected by the church fathers.
If John had meant to say that Jesus was a lesser form of deity, then he would have used the Greek word “thelos” and not “theos”. Also the context makes it very clear that the Word is God, not merely a quasi-divinity, a being that is somewhere between a God and created beings. The Word existed in the beginning. The Word was involved in the creation of everything. He possesses a life that is unique, an uncreated life that was His from eternity and is the source of spiritual light.
It is very clear that the translation of John 1:1 is indeed correct and should read “And the Word was God.” For the very word order in the Greek, the use of theos instead of thelos, and the context demand this rendering.
Paul even speaks of this even more clearly when he declares that as Christians we are “looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Ti. 2:13). Notice how it says “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” and not “our great God and the Savior Jesus Christ.” Because Paul also didn’t put an article before the word Savior, it is very clear that he too saw Jesus Christ as our great God.
Peter also used a similar Greek construction when he addressed his readers as “those who have obtained like precious faith with us by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:1).
In Hebrews 1:8,10, you will find the writer quoting several different Old Testament verses that clearly refer to God and applying them to Jesus Christ. “To the Son He says: ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever’. (quoted from Ps. 45:6) ‘You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands (quoted from Ps. 102:25-27).” The writer of this epistle was well schooled in the Old Testament Scriptures and because of this was a strict monotheist, yet wasn’t one bit reluctant to declare the absolute deity of Jesus Christ, in fact he identified Jesus as “God” and “Lord”.
The Predictions of the Old Testament Prophets
Even the Old Testament which is so dear to so many Jewish people, declared the deity of the coming Messiah with extreme crystal clarity. One such remarkable prophecy is found in Isaiah 9:6 “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Two of these names proclaim his deity, “Mighty God” and “Everlasting Father”. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses translate it as saying “a mighty god” but are not consistent. They encounter the same Hebrew expression in Isaiah 10:21 where even they cannot deny that it refers to Jehovah, the God of Israel. The term “Mighty God” is a clear declaration of the Messiah’s deity.
“Everlasting Father” can be translated to mean “Father of Eternity”, but it doesn’t really matter which term you pick, both express deity. Since there is only one everlasting God, only God can be given the name “Father of Eternity”.
Down through the years the church fathers agreed that Christ was both fully human and fully divine and with very few exceptions, all Christians down through the ages have accepted and affirmed the deity of Christ, even with all the great divisions of the church, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Baptist, and Pentecostal, all agree on this point. The vast majority who claim their allegiance to Jesus Christ have held Him to be both God and man in one Person. The true fact that Jesus was fully human is clearly revealed in the Bible. He was born a baby, grew and learned like all boys (Lk. 2:40,52), was a carpenter’s son in Nazareth (Mk. 6:3), became tired like the rest of us (Jn. 4:6), even admitted there were some things He didn’t know (Mt. 24:36), and on the night before His crucifixion dreaded the ordeal before Him (Mt. 26:36-46). Yet the Bible also teaches that Jesus is fully God!
Jesus had to be a member of the human race in order to be our proper substitute on the cross. This accounts for the fact that He depended on the Holy Spirit in the same way He expects His followers to do. He was “filled with the Holy Spirit” when He went into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. He cast out demons “by the Spirit of God” (Mt. 12:28). Although Jesus remained God, He voluntarily lived with the limitations of our humanity.
We may not and may never understand completely the relationship of our Lord’s human and divine natures while He lived here in the state of humiliation. But, the Scriptures make it very clear that though He was God, it as in His elemental manhood that He faced trial, trouble, and pain, even death on the cross.
This, is the Son with whom the Father shared His glory. This is the Son so closely identified with God that the Father makes our relationship to Him dependent on our relationship to His Son.
The Holy Spirit as God
Even some Bible students do not believe that the Holy Spirit is God. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Holy Spirit is a controlled force that Jehovah God uses to accomplish a variety of purposes. To a certain extent it can be likened to electricity, a fore that can be adapted to perform a great variety of operations, is how they see the Holy Spirit. They believe that the Holy Spirit functions like the Force that New Agers portray as pervading the universe. They flatly reject the idea that the Holy Spirit is a divine Person.
By doing this, however, they are contradicting Jesus Christ. He clearly perceived of the Holy Spirit as a Person. The night before His crucifixion He said to his apostles: “I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you” (Jn. 14:16-17).
It is clear that the Holy Spirit is “another Helper”. Even though Jesus would be leaving them, He would send them the Holy Spirit to guide them and empower them. This is clearly the function of a personal being.
Other passages also make it clear that the Holy Spirit is a Person. Paul wrote “love of the Spirit” (Rom. 15:30) He also told us not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph. 4:30). Only a personal being can love and be grieved.
On top of that, the Holy Spirit leads and guides (Rom. 8:14), teaches (Jn. 14:26), and calls and commissions (Acts 20:28), only a personal being can do these things.
So, who is the Holy Spirit? According to the Bible the Holy Spirit is a Person who rightly shares with the Father and the Son the title and the glory of the Most High God.
So, Do Christians Believe in Three Gods or One?
The Bible teaches that the Father is God, that the Son is God and that the Holy Spirit is God but it also shows that each has a distinct personality. So that adds up to three Gods right? Mathematically, the answer would be yes, but we are dealing with a God who is revealed in the Bible as one God, who has exited eternally as three distinct but not separate Persons.
So, God is one Being, not three. God is the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit and they are not three separate Persons. As Christians, we can distinguish between them, but, we cannot separate them.
Each functions in His own unique manner. God, the Father is the Originator, God the Son is the Agent and God the Holy Spirit is the Administrator or Applicator. Each lives with the other two in an I-You relationship. Each Person is self-conscious and self-directing. Yet one Person never acts independently of the others or in opposition to them. The mind, will, and the emotions of each Person is in perfect unity with the mind, will, and the emotions of the other two.
Finally, Jesus affirmed the Trinity when He commanded His disciples to baptize “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt. 28:19)
One God in three Persons! He is the God of Christians whom we worship and serve. In this God we have a heavenly Father who loves us with an eternal parental love and at great cost He sent His one and only Son to die for us on the cross for our salvation. In this God we have Jesus Christ, a brother who became one of us to take the punishment we deserved, who understands our pain, and who isn’t ashamed to call us His brothers and sisters even though we continue to be weak and imperfect. In this God we have the Person of the Holy Spirit as our Helper, a divine Comforter who lives in us to strengthen us and give us victory over sin.
This triune God, our God hears us when we pray, He understands us and feels with us when we suffer. He will be with us at the time of death to see us safely home. How important and how comforting it is to believe in the triune God of the Bible!