God in Three Persons: The Forgotten Trinity

ForgottenTrinityThe Forgotten Trinity by Dr. James R. White

“To know Christ truly is to know the Trinity, for God has not revealed himself in such a way as to allow us to have true and balanced knowledge of the Father outside of such knowledge of the Son, all of which comes to us through the Spirit…We must know, understand, and love the Trinity to be fully and completely Christian.”

The Trinity: possibly the most difficult concept of all the orthodox Christian doctrines. You have likely heard one or more of these explanations of the Trinity:

  • The Trinity is like an egg, which consists of the shell, the white, and the yolk.
  • The Trinity is like water, which can exist as ice, liquid, and steam.
  • The Trinity is like a man who is simultaneously a father, a son, and a husband.
  • The Trinity is like an equilateral triangle.

When it comes right down to it, no earthly, man-made analogy can adequately explain the Trinity; they all break down and ultimately convey doctrinal error. And what can be expected when man tries to explain the unexplainable? Should it be surprising to us that our God is so complex and so far beyond our understanding that there are aspects of Him that we simply cannot grasp or explain? Unfortunately, because it is so difficult to understand, the doctrine is often pushed to the side and neglected by the church.

We often hear people say they love God, or they love Jesus, or they love the Bible; but when was the last time you heard someone say, “I love the Trinity”? While all orthodox Christian groups hold to this doctrine, many individuals don’t have a clear grasp of the doctrine and are not grounded enough to be able to defend it, but merely hold to it out of fear of being labeled a heretic.

So why is this doctrine so important? Dr. James White says, “Since God went through a great deal of trouble to make it clear to us, we should see the Trinity as a precious possession, at the very top of the many things God has revealed to us that we otherwise would never have known.” Practically speaking, a good understanding of the Trinity will help us keep our worship in balance, not elevating one Person of the Godhead over the others. White explains,

True Christian worship is founded upon Christian truth. We have to have knowledge of our God to worship Him correctly… Almost every single imbalance in worship is due to a corresponding imbalance in our view of God…The doctrine of the Trinity calls us back to the balanced center point…Christian worship will be vital, consistent, and powerful when the proper attitude toward the triune God is maintained.

Let’s begin with a few definitions. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith defines the doctrine of the Trinity as follows:

In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him (Chapter 2, Paragraph 3).

Dr. White offers this solid but brief and basic definition of the Trinity:

Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three coequal and coeternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Dr. White cites Hank Hanegraaf as pointing out that,

when speaking of the Trinity, we need to realize that we are talking about one what and three who’s. The one what is the Being or essence of God; the three who’s are the Father, Son and Spirit. We dare not mix up the what’s and who’s regarding the Trinity.

Within the above definition, White identifies three fundamental truths about God:

  • There is only one God.
  • There are three divine persons.
  • The persons are coequal and coeternal.

He observes, “Every error and heresy on this doctrine will find its origin in a denial of one or more of these truths.”

The first truth states the belief in monotheism. This is the least problematic for Christians; in fact, even some false religions such as Islam and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as Judaism, accept this doctrine. But even here some Christians, because of their lack of instruction and misunderstandings regarding the Trinity, may fall into erroneous ideas such as modalism. Modalism, also known as Sabellianism is the belief that God is one person who takes on different roles at different times for different purposes, similar to an actor who plays different parts in a play.

The second truth, which becomes a major difference between orthodox Christianity and cults, is the deity of Jesus Christ. To address this doctrine, Dr. White spends time looking at the Prologue to the Gospel of John in John 1:18, passages in Scripture which testify of Christ’s equality with God, the “I am” statements of Christ found throughout John’s gospel, and passages which show Jesus as Creator as further proof of His deity. He also examines the fact that the person of Jesus is equated with Yahweh of the Old Testament, and that while on earth He was worshipped and accepted worship for Himself.

In discussing the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity, White points out that there are two issues that must be addressed from Scripture:

1) The Holy Spirit as a person and not merely an impersonal force or power, and
2) The Holy Spirit as eternal deity, equal with the Father and the Son.

White moves on to discuss the issue of the separateness of the three persons, thus hoping to correct the possible tendency toward modalism, the error that the “Jesus Only” or Oneness movements fall into. “Scripture leaves no room for confusing the Father, Son, and Spirit,” states White, and then proceeds to use numerous scripture passages that prove that these three cannot be the same person, as demonstrated by the ways in which they interact with one another and the ways in which they are spoken of.

trinity-graphicNext White addresses the third foundational truth of the co-equality and co-eternality of the three persons of the Godhead. He goes a bit deeper to consider when the Trinity began to be first understood and taught, and to further discuss the nature, relationship, and role of the three persons of the Godhead as revealed in Scripture. White explains,

The Trinity as a doctrinal truth has always been true. But when did it become knowable to men? What “revealed” it to the human race? The answer to that question is simply the Incarnation and the coming of the Holy Spirit. That is, the Trinity is revealed by the Son coming in the flesh and the Spirit descending upon the church…

The Trinity is a doctrine not revealed merely in words but instead in the very action of the Triune God in redemption itself! We know who God is by what He has done in bringing us to himself! The Father, loving His people and sending the Son. The Son, loving us and giving himself in our place. The Spirit, entering into our lives and conforming us to the image of Christ. Here is the revelation of the Trinity, in the work of Christ and the Spirit.

White ends his book by taking a look at the historical evidence for the belief in a triune God, as found in the earliest writings of the Christian church. Using the writings of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Melito of Sardis, as well as the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, White shows that the doctrine of the Trinity is not a new idea that developed later in the church. While we do not hold to the teachings of men over the Word of God, these examples from the first few centuries of the Christian church help to show that orthodox Christian believers have always understood God to be a trinitarian Being as described and taught in the Scriptures.

White’s purpose for writing The Forgotten Trinity is to help make more understandable a Biblical doctrine which he believes is often ignored and greatly misunderstood, and to inspire Christians to have a greater love for this aspect of our God. As a theological scholar, teacher, and expert apologist, White takes the trouble throughout his book to help his readers become more knowledgeable on the topic he is addressing by including relevant information on the original languages used, and the history, culture and prevailing philosophies of the time in which the scriptures were written. The Forgotten Trinity is an excellent book which I believe every Christian would profit from.

By way of reminder of the significance and importance of this doctrine, White writes,

True Christian worship is founded upon Christian truth. We have to have knowledge of our God to worship Him correctly. If we have defective knowledge, or worse, if we have wrong information and have been deceived, our worship is either lessened…or it is completely invalid, as the worship of idols and false god…Knowledge does not save, but true worship does not exist without knowledge.

It does matter what we believe about God. It affects our worship. It affects our message. It affects our spiritual walk and our daily life. Jesus Himself stated, “God is a Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). May you continue to grow in both the grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Note: The Forgotten Trinity is a book which I’ve included on my list of non-fiction works I believe every Christian should read.

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4 thoughts on “God in Three Persons: The Forgotten Trinity

  1. What a great review, and what a coincidence that you are posting this review on the same day that I’m posting Jesus . . . Continued by J.D. Greear — a book about the Holy Spirit. I’m in the middle of another book of theology right now put out by Crossway called The Things of Earth, and, WOW, does the author (Joe Rigney) ever give some great information on the Trinity as background to his main points. I’m only into the second chapter, but must say that I’ve learned a lot already.

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