The trinity is something unique to Christian thought. It is one of the great mysteries of God. In this doctrine alone, one can see how truly transcendent God is from our way of thinking. Roger E. Olson and Christopher A. Hall write in their book, The Trinity, “According to the Church Father Augustine anyone who denies the Trinity is in danger of losing their salvation, but anyone who tries to understand the Trinity is in danger of losing their mind (pg 1).”
The assertion that the doctrine of the Trinity is core to receiving Salvation seems hard to swallow. However, as one begins to look at the development of the Doctrine of the Trinity, it becomes clear why the Church placed such a strong emphasis on clarifying this divine mystery represented in Scripture.
The doctrine of the Trinity was developed as an polemic against the many forms of heresy arising in the Church. The basic problem the doctrine addresses was the tension between monotheistic worship of the Father (God), with the New Testament precedent that Jesus was worthy of worship as well. The doctrine of the Trinity really tried to answer how it was that Jesus was “one with the Father?” Was he one in essence or substance, or was Jesus some kind of divine “offspring” which leached a part of the Fathers being when he was created, or was he a separate deity?
The church Fathers concluded that Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were all of the same substance as the Father; that they were in fact all one, in will though and action. To affirm that Jesus was an offspring or offshoot of God, would not only contradict the monotheism of the Old Testament but it would also corrupt the nature of God because some of his divine would have been given to Jesus making the Father “less god.”
Tertullian was the first to formulate this “one substance three persons,” and use the Latin word trinitas when referring to God (O’Collins. The Tripersonal God. Pg 105.) From his influence the doctrine of the Trinity really moved forward. What was the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit? This had been one of the greater issues that the church sought to resolve since its conception, and here somewhere between 300-400 AD the answer was finally found in the doctrine of the Trinity. However, for as much as this doctrine explains it still leaves so many questions… and this is ok. However, to deny it is really to deny the Christian faith, because without you are left with a Christ-less Christianity.
Heresies Concerning the Trinity:
Arianism/Strict Monotheists: The affirmation of God the Father, but denial of the deity of Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.
Modalism/Sabellians: The belief that God is one but revealed himself in three distinct ways throughout history; the Father in the Old Testament, The Son in the Gospels, and the Holy Spirit in the present age.
Multiple gods: The worship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but as separate individual gods, divided in will, mind, and authority.
Hierarchy within the Trinity
One other major concern when speaking of the Trinity is the apparent hierarchy within its three persons. Specifically from the Gospels Jesus is submitted to the Father. The question then becomes why? If Jesus is God, the same substance as the Father, why is he submitting to the Father?
“Although God’s being is characterized by the hypostatic distinctions of Father, Son, and Spirit, all three persons are one in their will and Activity. They are not autonomous persons in the modern nuance of “individual,” each with its own separate “ego” and “center” of consciousness. Rather, they have always and will always purpose and operate with one will and action. They are one God, not three.
…Jesus’ human will is distinct from his divine will in the economy of the incarnation. In Gethsemane Jesus in obedience submits his will to the Father, while his divine will remains one with the Father’s.
In the same manner, when Jesus speaks of the Father as being “grater than I,” the reference is to the economy of the incarnation. The Father is indeed grater than the Son with reference to the Son’s humanity. ‘Without this [key] distinction between theologia and oikonomia we would have to interpret the obedience of Christ to the Father as an indication that even in his divine being he was subordinate to the Father—and this would be the end of Nicene trinitarianism.’ Again, in the Trinity we have one God, not three. (Roger E. Olson and Christopher A. Hall. The Trinity. Pgs 36-37.”