ONE GOD, BUT THREE MODES OF EXISTENCE
The word ‘trinity’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible. The Bible speaks only of God – one God – but uses many words and names to describe him (see Topic 44). The Bible does say, however, that God functions in the following three modes of existence (which theologians call ‘trinity’):
MODE 1. God is the pre-existing, all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere-present creator and sustainer of the universe. For this broad understanding of God, the Bible uses the word ‘Father’ (see Topics 42 and 45).
MODE 2. God (part of him) came to earth for a brief time in a human body (Jesus Christ) so that, by using human speech and demonstrations of practical love, mankind could learn about God’s plans and purposes. Also, in this human mode, he provided the once-for-all ultimate sacrifice for mankind. In this mode, the Bible refers to him as the ‘Son of God’ and the ‘Son of man,’ or simply the ‘Son’ (see Topics 43 and 45).
MODE 3. God (part of him) has a personal and intimate relationship with every individual who confesses sin and accepts Jesus Christ as savior. In this relational mode, the Bible refers to him as the ‘Holy Spirit’ (see Topics 44-45).
Even though he functions in three different modes, he’s still ONE GOD. (And, for all we know, he may function in still other modes we don’t know about and can’t comprehend.)
MODE: a manner or way of acting, doing, or being; method or form; a special attribute or emphasis that marks certain individuals or things.
GOD IS NOT A DIVINE COMMITTEE OF THREE
God is regarded by some people as three gods in some kind of mysterious union, and consequently the trinity is often erroneously viewed as a divine committee of three in heaven.
This concept conjures up images of a grandfatherly old man in a white robe sitting on a throne... Jesus Christ, his son, at his side... accompanied by a mysterious ghost-like someone or something. Some people project this imagery even further by seeing Mary, Jesus’ earthly mother, as a kind of deity in this scene.
We must be careful not to derive our understanding of God from common notions, but instead from our most authoritative source of spiritual knowledge, the Bible, which says that GOD IS ONE GOD and that his nature is beyond our simple conventional images.
However, the Bible says – and we can experience – that he’s a personal God who relates to mankind through Jesus Christ and to each individual through the Holy Spirit. In this sense – the way he functions – we may experience him almost as though he were three Gods (a creator-God in heaven, a teacher-savior on earth, and a divine inner presence). In essence, he’s ONE GOD functioning in three modes.
‘PERSONS’ IS NOT A GOOD DESCRIPTION OF TRINITY
Theologians often use these words to describe the trinity:
One divine essence (substance or being) existing in three persons
A well-known church hymn uses these words:
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed trinity
For centuries, God has been referred to as the ‘three persons of the trinity,’ but that’s confusing terminology to convey what the Bible really says about the nature of God.
The word ‘person’ now means something quite different than it did centuries ago. Then, it was a word referring to habitual patterns and qualities of behavior. Today, ‘person’ means a self-conscious, autonomous individual. When we apply today’s meaning to the concept of trinity, it sounds as if we’re speaking of three Gods. Thus, the word is misleading.
Trinity refers not to persons (as 1+1+1=3) but to dimensions (as 1x1x1=1).
A SINGLE ESSENCE IN THREE MODES
Water is an example of a single essence that functions in three modes. It’s essence is always two hydrogen atoms connected to an oxygen atom (H2O), but it functions variously as liquid, solid and gas. It looks and acts differently in each mode, but it’s always the same essence.
- We don’t say we drank a glass of H2O; we say we drank a glass of water
- We don’t say we skated on H2O; we say we skated on ice
- We don’t say the locomotive was powered by H2O; we say it was powered by steam
To our perceptions, the mode is so clear and distinct that for practical purposes we forget the essence. Similarly, in our spiritual perceptions, we say:
- God created the universe
- Jesus Christ came to earth
- The Holy Spirit lives within me
Understanding how H2O functions in three modes gives us some understanding of how God functions in three modes. Sometimes H2O is a vast surging sea (Father), sometimes the beauty of a snowflake (Son), and sometimes the invisible power in a steam engine (Holy Spirit).
With the simple but profound concept of water diagrammed here (two hydrogen atoms connected to an oxygen atom), we have an important key to understanding the physical world.
Similarly, with the simple but profound concept of trinity diagrammed here (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), we have an important key to understanding the spiritual world.
In using diagrams, however, we must remember that they’re just visual representations of real things too mysterious to fully comprehend. If a drop of water is staggeringly complex, how much more complex is God himself!
Basic concepts of God’s design plan – like H2O and trinity – can give us adequate working knowledge for everyday living even though the intricacies still remain a mystery.
See Topic 8 for another example (light) from the physical world that helps us understand the concept of trinity.
Here's a sampling of what the Bible says on this subject.
One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all
Jesus says he and the Father are one
Matthew 28:19, I Corinthians 12:4-6, I Peter 1-2
Same worship is given and works ascribed to Father, Son and Holy Spirit
For help, see Topic 29.