Where did the doctrine of the Trinity come from?
A woman who does ministry with her husband and their two young children in rural Mexico emailed some questions she had about the Trinity. She was recently told by a pastor, “that the trinity is a doctrine that is not found in the Bible but was made up by the church later.” This caused her concern as she explains, “I know the word itself is not in the Bible but the doctrine seems very important to the Christian worldview.” Her questions on this issue are, “So where did the doctrine of the trinity come from? Where can we find it conceptually in the bible? Why is the trinity important to good doctrine? If someone doesn’t believe in the specific concept, what might be the implications?” I want to thank this woman for allowing me to answer these questions, and even driving up from Mexico with her family to hear me preach and introduce herself and her children. Her questions are complex, and one’s that many people have. So, I will take a four-part blog series to answer them in succession.
It is not surprising that the doctrine of the Trinity is among the most profound, complex, and unique concepts in all of theology. After all, when us finite created beings are straining to understand our infinite Creator God it should not surprise us that we quickly find ourselves at the end of our mental tether. Like every loving relationship, however, seeking to learn all we can about the God who loves us may not be easy but is vital.
For starters, to argue that just because a word does not appear in the Bible that the concept does not appear is unfair Sometimes, we use terms to summarize in a succinct way a great deal of truth. For example, the pastor said that the word Trinity does not appear in the Bible. But, he overlooked the fact that the word “Bible” also does not appear in the Bible. That word means “book” and we use it as shorthand to speak of the books that God wrote through human authors just like we use the word Trinity. Other words that you will not find in the Bible but hear pastors and teachers use a lot to summarize Biblical truth about God include atheism (no god), monotheism (one god), omniscience (all knowing God), omnipresence (all present God), or incarnation (God in human flesh). Christians are also familiar with other words that the Bible does not use including a worship leader, rapture, and altar call. Just because a particular word does not appear in the Bible, the more important question is whether or not the concept it conveys does appear in the Bible.
For our purposes, we will use the following definition: The Trinity is one God who eternally exists as three distinct persons—Father, Son, and Spirit—who are each fully and equally God in eternal relation with each other. To clarify, to say that each member of the Trinity is a “person” does not mean that God the Father or God the Spirit became human beings. Rather, it means that each member of the Trinity thinks, acts, feels, speaks, and relates because they are persons and not impersonal forces. Further, each member of the Trinity is equally God, which means that they share all the divine attributes.
The earliest Christians were Jewish believers. As Jews, they believed that there is only one God, and that this God is Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is important to note that the early Christians continued to affirm their belief in one God. But they also confessed that Father, Son, and Spirit. While the Apostle’s Creed was not written by the Twelve disciples, it is ancient, dating back to the second century. It begins, “I believe in God the Father,” continues “And in the Lord Jesus Christ,” and culminates with “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”
Tertullian, who converted to Christianity just before 200 AD and defended Christianity prolifically until he died about 220 AD, initiated use of the Latin words Trinitas, persona and substantia (Trinity, person, and substance or essence) to express the biblical teaching that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one in divine essence but distinguished in relationship as persons within the inner life of God himself. He is also believed to be the first person to use the word “Trinity” to refer to the God of the Bible.
The three major Ecumenical Councils are worth noting in order to trace the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. These gatherings of church leaders discussed major theological issues for the purpose of recognizing what the church believed. One reason they were called was to respond to heretical teaching that needed to be confronted. For example, the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) included some three hundred bishops, many of whom bore the scars of persecution, and was convened primarily to resolve the debate over Arianism, the false teaching that Christ was a creature, an angel who was the highest created being, but not God. It concluded that the Son was one substance (homoousios) with the Father. The Logos, who was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth is God himself. He is not like God, but is fully and eternally God.
With the deity of Christ officially recognized, the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381) extended the discussion to the identification of the Holy Spirit within the Godhead. Constantinople expanded the Nicene Creed, making the creed fully Trinitarian, and officially condemned Arianism. It solidified the orthodox doctrine of the full humanity of Jesus Christ. The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) focused on the relationship of Christ’s humanity to his divinity (known as hypostatic union) and issued the formula of Chalcedon, which became the orthodox statement on the person of Christ. Hypostatic union means that Jesus is one person with two natures and therefore simultaneously fully God and fully human.
The contributions of the councils to the doctrine of the Trinity can be summarized under four headings:
- One Being, Three Persons. God is one being and has one essence. There is no God but the triune God who exists eternally in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The whole God is in each person, and each person is the whole God. Threeness of person is not just a matter of action or revelation, but of eternal being.
- Consubstantiality. One identical divine substance is shared completely by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Any essential characteristic that belongs to one of the three is shared by the others. Each of the three divine persons is eternal, each almighty, none greater or less than another, each God, and yet together being but one God.
- Perichoresis. This concept, also called circumincession or interpenetration, refers to the loving interrelation, partnership, or mutual dependence of the three persons. Since all three persons are fully God and the whole God is in each of the three, it follows that the three mutually indwell or contain one another as Jesus said, “just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you,”
- The Order of the Persons. There is a clear order of the relations between the three fully divine persons: from the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit.
Note: Much of this blog series is adapted from the book Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe written by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears
 John 17:21.