The Trinity: Puzzling or Understandable?

Do you ever feel puzzled if asked about the Trinity? I know I have. It seems safer to sidestep a question about the Trinity, change the subject or say something like this, “That is a good question, the Trinity is a mystery and hard to understand. I can’t really explain it.” 

I grew up in a church in which I was reminded of the Trinity every time I “crossed myself” when I said “grace” before a meal or kneeled and entered the pew at church. I never thought much about it, along with the many other things I did as a ritual in those years. When I did begin to think about the Trinity, I thought the subject was too much of a mystery and too “difficult” to understand. I heard the different analogies, like God being compared with the three forms of H2O, or with a man who is a father, a son and a brother, yet one man. Understandably, we want ways to “grasp” God; yet these analogies are not totally adequate, and fall short.

So then, how do we understand the Trinity? Is the Trinity just three puzzle pieces that are to be put together? Or are there some things we can understand?

What Can We Understand?

There are many things in life we take for granted and even trust, yet we don’t understand everything about it.  “To understand” something is to grasp the idea of it.  Because I cannot fully grasp the Trinity, I might say the Trinity it not understandable. There are many things in life I don’t fully grasp, yet I still understand something of it. 

Right now the leaves are changing to the hues of fall. I see the red, the yellow and orange leaves famously lining the streets. I feel the cooler breeze and welcome the change of season. I understand some of what contributes to this dramatic shift — the shortening of days, the amount of rainfall and the breaking down of chlorophyll. These things (and much more I do not know) bring about such wonderful color. I understand some things but not all. Another classic example is love. I know what love is, can observe love in action, and can describe it. At the same time I don’t always do a good job of loving others: and I can’t completely grasp God’s great and generous love. I know in part, but not completely.

The Trinity is similar. The Trinity is puzzling. There is mystery in God because He is God and we are not. We will never fully comprehend Him, yet God does reveal Himself, can be known and understood. He has made Himself known to us, and one day we may know and understand more fully.2

A Place to Start

God is One

So what can we understand? All the way back to the beginning of the Bible and throughout the Bible it is declared that God is One. “Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God and the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4). In the beginning of the ten commandments God says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). There is one true God who eternally exists.

God is Triune

Throughout the Old Testament there are hints of the plurality of God. And these hints come more into focus through the lens of the New Testament. The word for “one” in the above verse, Deut 6:4, can be defined as a composite oneness — a oneness in diversity. There are instances also of God using plural pronouns. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to the image of our likeness’” (Gen 1:26). In the Old Testament there are words for God that actually can have a plural meaning. “Lord” can be translated as Lords or Majestic Ones.

In the New Testament there are numerous examples of plurality. One of the most notable examples is in Jesus’ last words to His disciples before He ascends to heaven (Last words are always note worthy). “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’” (Matt 28:18-19). There is one true God who eternally exists in three persons.

Sufficient Understanding

God is Infinite. 

God’s infinite qualities make God different than us. He is set apart from all else. God is the Creator and Sustainer of Life — of all that is visible and invisible. Think about this for a moment and the implications of this statement. God is eternal, powerful, all-present, and all-knowing. He is uncreated, invisible, unchanging, self-sufficient, and self-sustaining.4 Through the pages of the Bible we learn much about God’s infinite qualities.

God declares Himself to Moses in an extraordinary way. “But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’” (Ex 3:13-15) This can be translated as God exists within Himself. God is self-existing.5

How can I ever fully understand God who creates and sustains life? But as I look out my window at the fall leaves I understand something of the beauty of creation and how He made and changes the seasons. God is infinite, and my finite mind can only grasp a hint of who He is.

God is Personal

By saying God is personal is not the same thing as saying, “God is my buddy or pal.” Can you imagine saying this about the King of the Universe? By personal, I mean God can be known. He relates to us as persons. He can be with us and even dwell within us. God has personal qualities we also demonstrate as people created in His image, such as love, goodness, mercy, faithfulness, justice, and wisdom.6 God, though, is holy and the perfect measure of all that is good, and all that is good in all of His qualities.7

God reveals much about His personal character in the book of 1 John. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent His only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sin” (1 John 4:8-10). 

God relates personally to humankind as a God who is loving, generous, merciful, gracious, wise, faithful and good.

The Triune God

Though there is much we do not know about God there is also much He has made known about Himself. We may not understand everything about God but we can understand many things. We don’t have to just stop because it is a puzzle we cannot sort out, but we can start with what we do know. God is one and God is Triune. God is infinite and personal. There is one true God who eternally exists in three persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — one in nature, equal in glory and distinct in relations.8

Next Post: The Father is God

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     1 J. Scott Horrell, “Revelation and Mystery: Approaching the Doctrine of the Trinity,” (Dallas Theological Seminary, September 2019). 

     2 1 John 3:2

     3 J. Scott Horrell, “Veiled Glory: Trinitarian Evidences in the Old Testament,” (Dallas Theological Seminary, October 2019). The word for “one” (ehad) in Dt 6:4, often means a unified or composite oneness, a unity in diversity. It is the same word used for “one” flesh. There are also plural terms used for God in the words “elohim” and “adonai” (majestic ones, Lords).

     4  J. Scott Horrell, “The Attributes of God” (Dallas Theological Seminary, September 2019). “God is not only the supreme reality but also this God is an infinite, personal Creator.” Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1986), 39.

     5 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1986), 45. The names of God reveal God’s character. The term “Elohim” is a general name for deity, but in the Bible this name for God indicates He is a God of power, to be worshipped. God is Supreme.  J. Scott Horrell, “The Names of God” (Dallas Theological Seminary, September 2019). One way God reveals Himself in the Old Testament is as “the “I AM”, or YHWH (Ex 3:13-15). This indicates “existence or development … it seems to indicate God as the ever-active, self-existent One … Adonai is also used for God, which is revealing God as Lord and Master. J. Scott Horrell, “The Attributes of God” (Dallas Theological Seminary, September 2019) “God does not derive from or depend on anything outside his own being. As that which sustains all other existence…” Job 41:11; Matt 11:25. He is over all and Lord of heaven and earth.

     6 Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 22-24. God is revealed throughout the Bible as One who loves, begets life, gives, and shows emotions. He is “relational and life-giving.”

     7 Merrill F. Unger, “Holiness,” in The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, ed. R.K. Harrison, rev. ed. (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1985), 581. “Holiness if on the one hand, entire freedom from moral evil and, on the other, absolute moral perfection.” Dt 32:4. God is just, faithful and perfect. God relates personally revealing His character as a God who is loving, faithful, good and true. Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 21, 52. “He is a God who thinks that is good. And he is a God who can declare his creation good.”

     8 J. Scott Horrell and others, “High-Altitude Survey,” in Nathan D. Holsteen and Michael H. Svigel, eds., “Exploring Christian Theology, vol. 1, Revelation, Scripture, and the Triune God Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publisher, 2015), 131.

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