The Doctrine of the Trinity

One of the more important and central doctrines of Christianity is the doctrine of the Trinity. The concept that there is one God that subsists in three persons is essential to the Christian faith. J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., in his Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion states, “The doctrine of the Trinity is indispensable for the harmony and unity of other major doctrines in the Christian system” (p. 126). A good example of the essentiality of the doctrine of the Trinity is its relation to the incarnation of Christ. It would be impossible to conceive of God becoming man, dying for the sins of man, and rising from the dead apart from the concept of the Trinity.

“For God (the Father) so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son (the second person of the Trinity) that whosoever believeth in him (through the conviction and enabling work of the Holy Spirit, John 16:8; Eph. 2:1-8) should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16) (Buswell., p. 128).

The doctrine of the Trinity is not an arithmetic paradox; it does not teach that one equals three. The doctrine propounds that there is but one God, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is each God; and that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is each a distinct person – a self-conscious being. The classic definition of the Trinity is: God is one in essence and three in person. The reason people usually have trouble understanding this is that we are accustomed to the idea that “one person equals one essence.” While there is mystery involved in the Trinity, it is not irrational; it does not present an antinomy.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly, but rather implicitly set forth in the Scripture. This format, however, in which the doctrine is presented does not cause it to be an unbiblical concept. B. B. Warfield, in his article, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity” states: “The doctrine of the Trinity lies in Scripture in solution; when it is crystallized from its solvent it does not cease to be Scriptural, but only comes into clearer view (Biblical and Theological Studies, p. 22)

The entire Bible is Trinitarian to the core. It is incorrect to advocate that the New Testament is Trinitarian and the Old Testament is monotheistic. The doctrine of the Trinity is present in the Old Testament, but it is enunciated more in the guise of intimation than direct revelation. Some of the indications of the Trinity in the Old Testament are: the employment of plural pronouns in reference to God (Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8), repetitions of the name of God that seem to distinguish between God and God (Psa. 45:6,7; 110:1), and threefold liturgical formulas (Numbers 6:24,26; Isa. 6:3).

The Angel of God in the Old Testament is a particularly strong indication of the Trinity (Gen. 16:7-13; 22:1,2, 11-18; 31:11-13; 48:15,16; Exo. 3:2-6; 13:21 and 14:19; 23:20-23 and 33:14; 32:34 – compare Exo. passages with Judges 2:1-4 and Exo. 20:1,2; Josh. 5:5:13-15; Judges 6:11-23; 13:18-22; 2 Sam. 24:16; Zech. 12:8). In every context the Angel of God speaks and performs deeds as if he were God himself, but distinguishes himself from God.

The Old Testament also contains references to the Son (Psa. 2:12) and to the Holy Spirit (Gen. 1:2). There are many passages which depict God’s Word and Spirit as co-causes with God of his work (Gen. 1:2; Psa. 33:6; Isa 42:1; Hag. 2:5,6). Included in this category are passages that tend to personalize God’s Word (Psa. 33:6; 107:20; 147:15-18; Isa. 55:11; 63:10).

The Trinity is also alluded to in those passages in which the Messiah as a Divine speaker refers to the Lord and/or the Spirit as having sent him (Isa. 48:16; 61:1 [see: Luke 4:16-18]; Zech. 2:10,11). The distinct persons of the Trinity are also implied in Isaiah 63:9,10. Isaiah speaks of the Lord, the Angel of his presence, and his Holy Spirit as distinct persons.

These implications in the Old Testament that God is triune in his nature were prepatory for the fuller revelation of the New Testament (ibid., p. 29,30). Concerning this B. B. Warfield states:

The Old Testament may be likened to a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted; the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what is in it but was only dimly or even not at all perceived before. The mystery of the Trinity is not revealed in the Old Testament; but the mystery of the Trinity underlies the Old Testament revelation, and here and there almost comes into view. Thus the Old Testament revelation of God is not corrected by the fuller revelation which follows it, but only perfected, extended and enlarged (Warfield, p. 30, 31).

In the New Testament, the doctrine of the Trinity is not seen as a gradually developing doctrine; it appears as a fully mature concept. The theme of the New Testament caused the doctrine to be the fully established conception of God within the Christian community. The process of redemption was God’s complete revealing of himself to man; the incarnation and the subsequent manifestations of the Holy Spirit set forth the full revelation of the Trinity. Consequently, the New Testament writers did not consider themselves to be departing from the God of the Old Testament, but rather felt that the God of the Old Testament had made himself more fully known to man through the redemptive process. The doctrine of the Trinity constitutes the conception of God set forth through the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the basic proof that God is a Trinity lies in the support for the deity of the Son and the deity of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the whole mass of the New Testament is evidence for the Trinity because the core of the New Testament is concerned with the documentation of the deity of Christ and the deity of the Holy Spirit (Warfield, p. 35).

The New Testament abounds with proof for the deity of Jesus Christ. In eight passages, Jesus is described by the Greek word Theos (God): John 1:1-3; 1:18; 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:1; 1 John 5:20. Divine attributes, such as eternality (Isa. 9:6; John 1:1,2; Rev. 1:8; 22:13), omnipresence (Matt. 18:20; 28:20; John 3:13), omniscience (John 2:24,25; 21:17; Rev. 2:23), omnipotence (Isa. 9:6; Phil. 3:21; Rev. 1:8), immutability (Heb. 1:10-12; 13:8), and in general, every attribute of the Father is ascribed to the Son (Col. 2:9).

The New Testament also depicts Jesus as exercising Divine prerogatives and works: creation (John 1:3,10; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2,10), providence (Luke 10:22; John 3:35; 17:2; Eph. 1:22; Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3), the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 9:2-7; Mark 2:7-10; Col. 3:13), resurrection and judgment (Matt. 25:31,32; John 5:19-29; Acts 10:42; 17:31; Phil. 3:21; 2 Tim. 4:1), and the final dissolution and renewal of all things (Eph. 1:10; Heb. 1:10-12; Phil. 3:21; Rev. 21:5) (see: Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof, p. 94, 95).

The New Testament also affirms the deity of Jesus in calling him Yahweh. Old Testament prophecies concerning Yahweh are quoted in the New Testament as being references to Jesus (compare Mal. 3:1 and Luke 1:76; Joel 2:32 and Rom. 10:13; Isa. 45:23 and Rom. 14:10). (Buswell, p. 104, 105). These examples are adequate to demonstrate that the New Testament contains a myriad of proof for the deity of Jesus Christ.

The deity of the Holy Spirit may be proven through a line of reasoning similar to that used to demonstrate the deity of the Son. Peter uses the terms Holy Spirit and God interchangeably in Acts 5:3,4, thus directly calling the Holy Spirit God. Divine attributes are ascribed to the Holy Spirit: omnipresence (Psa. 139:7-10), omniscience (Isa. 40:13,14, compare with Romans 11:34), omnipotence (1 Cor. 2:11; Rom. 15:19), and eternality (Hebrews 9:14). Divine works are performed by the Holy Spirit such as creation (Gen. 1:2; Job 26:13), regeneration (John 3:4,5; Titus 3:5), and the resurrection of the dead (Rom. 8:11) (Berkhof, p. 97, 98).

The Holy Spirit is also ascribed the qualities of personhood and personality in Scripture. These qualities consist of mind, will, and emotions. For example, in Romans 8:26, 27, the Holy Spirit helps in prayer, searches hearts, is said to have a mind, and intercedes for the saints (see also 1 Cor. 2:11).

1 Corinthians 12:11 states that the Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts to various Christians “just as he wills.” Ephesians 4:30, in providing ethical exhortations, urges Christians not to grieve the Holy Spirit of God, thus attributing emotion to the Holy Spirit. In Acts 5:3,4, Peter said that Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit. One does not lie to an impersonal force. This passage not only affirms the deity of the Holy Spirit, but also demonstrates his personhood. The following passages teach that the Holy Spirit will teach, speak, guide, convict of sin, witness, comfort, glorify Christ, give gifts, etc. All of these are qualities of personality: John 14:26; 15:26; 16:14; Acts 13:1-3; 16:6,7; 20:22,23; 21:11; Rom. 8:14-16, 26,27; 1 Cor. 2:10,11; 12:1-3, 12,13; Galatians 5:22-25; Ephesians 1:13,14; 4:30; Titus 3:3-5; Hebrews 10:29; Jude 20; Revelation 22:17.

These proofs of the deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit implicitly teach the triune nature of God.

Even though the doctrine of the Trinity is basically taught implicitly in the New Testament, it is also explicitly set forth in numerous passages. The teaching of Jesus affirms a Trinitarian concept of God. Concerning this B. B. Warfield states:

He [Jesus] has much to say of God his Father, from whom as His Son He is in some true sense distinct, and with whom He as He represents the is in some equally true sense one. And He has much to say of the Spirit, who represents Him Father, and by whom He works as the Father works by Him (ibid. p. 37).

A good example of this is the discourses of Jesus in the gospel of John. Jesus is direct in his assertions that he and the Father are one (John 10:30) and that this oneness entails a unity of interpenetration (John 10:38; 14:10,11). Jesus’ unity with the Father is seen clearly by his claims of eternality (John 8:58; 17:5,18) (ibid. p. 38). His speaking of himself as the Son of God (John 5:25; 9:35; 10:36; 11:4) also affirms his equality with the Father because the Jewish usage of the term “son of. . .” conveyed the idea of equality and identity of nature. The Jews understood that when Jesus called himself the Son of God, he was identifying himself as equal and identical with God (John 5:18; 10:33) (Buswell, p. 105). Jesus also stressed that he possessed a personal distinctness from the Father. He explained his presence in the world as involving a coming forth out of God (John 8:42; 16:28). Jesus spoke objectively of the Father sending him into the world (John 8:42; 17:21), of an interchange of emotions between the Father, himself, and his disciples (John 16:26, 28, 30; 17:33), and of his having fellowship with the Father (John 7:29). Therefore, Jesus not only claims a oneness with the Father, but also purports that there is a distinction of person between them: a subject-object relationship that involves an exchange of emotions, such as love (John 17:23,24) and of an action and reaction upon each other (John 17:8) (Warfield p. 39).

The teaching of Jesus also supports the deity of the Holy Spirit and declares that a subject-object relationship also exist between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. In Jesus farewell discourse, he stated: “These things I have spoken to you, while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (John 14:25,26 NASB).” This passage demonstrates a personal distinctness between the three persons of the Godhead. The unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, however, is set forth in the same discourse. After stating that the Spirit would come in his stead, Jesus said that he would not leave his disciples as orphans, but that he would come to them (John 14:18). Therefore, in this discourse, Jesus indicated that there is a unity between himself and the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the teaching in John 14 indicates a distinctness of the persons in the Godhead and also indicates that where the Spirit is present, so also is Christ, and where Christ is present, so also is the Father; both a distinction and unity of the persons of the Godhead is suggested and, thus, the doctrine of the Trinity is presupposed (Buswell, p.114-115).

The most direct pronouncement of Jesus concerning the Trinity is found in the great commission. Matthew 28:19 states: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. . . (NASB).” Before examining what this passage asserts, it is important to note what it does not assert. It does not say, in the names (plural) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, as if to indicate three different persons. Neither does it state, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as if to imply that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are designations for a single person. The passage does declare the unity of the Godhead in its singular use of “name;” it also sets forth the distinctness of each person in the Godhead through the repetition of the definite article before each name. Therefore, this passage teaches the unity of the Godhead, in that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each have a common usage of the one name; it also designates a distinct personhood to each of the three members of the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Warfield, p. 42).

B. B. Warfield summarizes this well:

This is a direct ascription to Jehovah the God of Israel, of a threefold personality, and is therewith the direct enunciation of the doctrine of the Trinity. We are not witnessing here the birth of the doctrine of the Trinity; that is presupposed. What we are witnessing is the authoritative announcement of the Trinity as the God of Christianity by its Founder, in one of the most solemn of His recorded declarations (p. 44).

The triune nature of God, evidenced in the redemptive process, underlies the teaching of the New Testament. It is an assumed fact and a pivot upon which the early Christian community’s conception of God turned.

Historically, a theological problem arose concerning the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. Neo-Stoic and Neo-Platonic ideas existent in the second century influenced Christian thought. The result was that a concept of the Godhead arose that proposed a subordination of the Son and the Holy Spirit to the Father in their modes of subsistence (Logos-Christology). Monarchianism, a reaction against this concept of the Godhead, stated that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were only different expressions of the one Divine person. The Church, particularly through the work of Tertullian, came to a balance between these two positions. Under the leadership of Athanasius, the Church’s formal declaration of the Trinity was set forth by the Council of Nicea in A. D. 325 (Warfield, p. 57-58). However, traces of subordinationist thought were still present in the Nicean Creed in the form of the idea of an eternal generation of the Son. This concept is captured in the Nicean Creed by its phrase: “God out of God” (theos ek theou).

Eternal generation essentially postulates that the Father is the beginning or author of the being of the Son. Consequently, only the Father has being in himself. Eternal generation does not mean a creation of the Son by the Father and it does not suggest a pattern modeled after human generation (i.e. there is no reference to a female personage in the Godhead). Neither does it attempt to separate or divide the Divine essence. The concept does claim that the Son is eternally begotten or generated by the Father. The eternality of the Son was recognized by the Church at the time of the Council of Nicea in that claimed that the Son was eternally begotten. This concept, however, tends to subordinate the Son to the Father in modes of subsistence as well as operation because it uses elements of language that are inherent from the Logos-Christology.

These tendencies toward the essential subordination of the Son led to a misinterpretations of John 15:26. Instead of correctly interpreting the verse in its immediate context that after the ascension of Christ, the Holy Spirit would be manifested in the Church, the early Church followed subordinationist ideas and postulated that the Holy Spirit “proceeded” from the Father and the Son (the Eastern branch of the Church claimed the Holy Spirit “proceeded” only from the Father). The Church said this procession, like the generation of the Son, is eternal and, therefore, protected the deity of the Holy Spirit. However, this concept also tended to subordinate the Holy Spirit ontologically and, thus, make him a quasi-dependent being (Buswell, p. 119). Therefore, the Nicean Creed defended the essential deity of the Son, but it contained components of subordinationist thought which, if unwarrantably emphasized, could make the Son inferior to the Father ontologically. This same subordinationist thought could also lead to the Holy Spirit being understood as ontologically inferior. Because of these problems, it became necessary in later church history to reassert the self-existence of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, reemphasized that the Son was God in himself. In Book 1, Chapter 13, Article 19 of the Institutes. . ., Calvin cites Augustine for support and contends that the Father and the Son is each God in respect to himself, but each derives his personhood of Father or Son from the relationship he sustains with the Father or Son. Calvin emphasizes this point in 1,13,25 in stating that each person of the Trinity is deity and exists in himself. However, the personhood of each member of the Trinity stems from his relationship with the other persons of the Godhead. Therefore, the Father is not the deifier of the Son. Finally, in 1,13,29, Calvin says, “Indeed it is foolish to imagine a continual act of begetting, since it is clear that three persons have subsisted in God from eternity.” In summary, Calvin contends that the Son is God in himself and derives his hypostatic distinction of Son from his relationship to the Father and the Father is God in himself and derives his hypostatic distinction of Father from his relationship to the Son. The nature of this relationship simply remains a mystery since God has not revealed it.  John Murray concurs:

Students of historical theology are acquainted with the furor which Calvin’s insistence upon the self-existence of the Son as to His deity aroused at the time of the Reformation. Calvin was too much of a student of Scripture to be content to follow the lines of what had been regarded as Nicene orthodoxy on this particular issue. He was too jealous for the implication of the homoousion clause of the Nicene Creed to be willing to accede to the interpretation which the Nicene fathers, including Athanasius, placed upon another expression in the same creed, namely, “very God of very God.” No doubt this expression is repeated by orthodox people without any thought of suggesting what the evidence derived from the writings of the Nicene fathers would indicate the content to have been. This evidence shows that the meaning intended is that the son DERIVED His deity from the Father and that the Son was not, therefore, “autotheos.” It was precisely this position that Calvin controverted with such vigor. He maintained that, as respects personal distinction, the Son was of the Father but, as respects deity, He was self-existent. This position ran counter to the Nicene tradition. Hence, the indictments leveled against him. It is, however, to the credit of Calvin that he did not allow his own more sober thinking to be suppressed out of deference to an established pattern of thought when the latter did not commend itself by conformity to Scripture and was inimical to Christ’s divine identity.

The solution to the seeming paradox of an equality and subordination existing in the Trinity simultaneously lies in understanding the difference between the ontological and economical Trinity. Ontologically, each member of the Trinity is equal; each is God in himself and has self-existence. However, Scripture teaches a subordination of the Son to the Father and the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son in an economic or administrative sense. In the administrative aspects of redemption, the Father sends the Son and the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit. There exists, therefore, a divine order in the intra-personal relationships of the members of the Trinity. However, the modes of procession between the members of the Godhead are a mystery; the mode of paternity or filiation between the Father and the Son is an incommunicable property. Therefore, it is impossible to explain the precise nature of the relationships between the different members of the Godhead. It is important, however, to maintain a balance between the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity; neither must be allowed to overshadow the other. Historically, serious errors have occurred particularly when the administrative aspects of the Trinity have been applied in an ontological sense. This has usually resulted in the Son and the Holy Spirit being demeaned.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes the doctrine of the Trinity well:

Are There more Gods than one? There is but one only, the living and true God. How many persons are there in the Godhead? There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory (Questions 5, 6).


Berkhof, Louis. 1939. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eardman’s.

Buswell, J. Oliver, Jr. 1962. A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Calvin, John. 1960. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Warfield, B. B. 1952. “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity.” Biblical and Theological Studies. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.

About the author

Dr. Van Lees

Dr. Van Lees is the pastor/teacher of Covenant of Grace Church. He has been the pastor of the church since 1985 when it started. Dr. Lees has a M. Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary, a D. Min. from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Whitefield Theological Seminary.