By Bill Warren, Professor of New Testament and Greek at NOBTS
Question: Why is the trinity so important for Christians to affirm? Can’t we just believe in God? And isn’t the trinity like having three Gods?
Bill Warren responds: Let’s start thinking about this question with some background. The first Christians, being Jewish, were totally monotheistic, believing as the Shema from Deuteronomy. 6:4 notes: “The Lord our God is one.”
This was their starting point as they wrestled to understand their experience of God’s presence in Jesus. The struggle was not with being monotheistic and believing in the Holy Spirit since the Spirit was mentioned many times in the Old Testament and understood as the powerful presence of God working in this world. Of course, they become even more “Spirit” conscious with their powerful experience at Pentecost and beyond.
But how did Jesus fit into this picture of God?
The trinity is the answer to that question and expresses something at the core of our Christian faith: When we follow Jesus, we have an encounter with God himself, for to walk with Jesus is to walk with God!
The height of explaining what the disciples experienced as they walked with Jesus both before his death and after his resurrection and ascension is found in John. 1:1-18, with verse 14 being key: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Jesus was fully God, indeed God himself incarnate in the flesh. As a result, we as Christians declare that the only true God has revealed himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in essence with Jesus being added to the Jewish OT picture of God due to our belief that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians. 5:19). So this is not simply a human invention, but is a revelation from God himself that we are trying to explain through the doctrine of the trinity.
So why is it so important? Because we are saying something permanent about God when we talk about the trinity.
We are not saying that there are three Gods, but we are saying that God is always our Creator, the Father of all. And God is always working within His creation in unseen ways as the Spirit. And God is always the God we saw in Jesus who died redeem us.
God is always like He revealed Himself to be and like we experience Him to be in Christ Jesus our Lord. God is so complex that we don’t have a better way of saying it than with the doctrine of the Trinity even as we realize that words and doctrines always pale before the unfathomable majesty and awesomeness of our God.
Bill Warren Ph.D. is professor of New Testament and Greek in the Landrum P. Leavell II Chair of NT Studies; founding director of the H. Milton Haggard Center of New Testament Textual Studies.