Is the teaching that God is both three and one a contradiction?

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The doctrine of the Trinity may be a mystery, but it’s not a contradiction. The phraseology is very important. We do not say that God is one person and three persons, which is clearly a contradiction. We say that God is three persons, but one in essence; this is not a contradiction.  It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to find a suitable way to illustrate the Trinity. Most attempts fall into tritheism (three gods) or modalism (the Father becomes the Son and then the Holy Spirit), which are historically heretical beliefs. For example, water is a popular analogy often used to explain the Trinity. However, water represents modalism because it can be in only one form at any given time. If H2O could take the form of solid, liquid, and vapor simultaneously, the analogy would be stronger. There is nothing in the created order that is analogous to the Trinity. It’s like a two-dimensional square trying to understand the world of a three-dimensional cube.

Although the word Trinity (“tri-unity” or “three-in-oneness”) is absent from Scripture, the concept of the Triune God is present. To understand this concept we must first understand God’s unity. Deuteronomy 6:4 says, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” Other verses that support the oneness of God include 1 Corinthians 8:4, Galatians 3:20, and 1 Timothy 2:5. The Old Testament teaches that God is one, but does not specifically teach the Trinity. However, it does allow for the Trinity by leaving the possibility of further revelation. In Genesis 1:1, the word for God—Elohim—is a plural noun. In Genesis 1:26; 3:22; 11:7 and Isaiah 6:8, plural pronouns are used in reference to God (i.e. “Let us make man in our own image”). In English we have only the singular and the plural. However, Hebrew uses the singular, the dual (two), and the plural (more than two). The plural Elohim, interpreted God, allows for the New Testament revelation of the Trinity. While the Old Testament does not overtly teach the Trinity, there are passages within it that suggest a distinction between the Lord, the Son, and the Spirit (i.e. Psalm 2:7,12 and Numbers 27:18).

In the New Testament the three persons of the Trinity are clearly revealed. Jesus commanded His disciples to be baptized, “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Each member of the Trinity is identified as God: The Father is God (John 6:27; Romans 1:7; 1 Peter 1:2), the Son is God (John 1:1, 14; John 20:27-29; Colossians 2:9; Hebrews 1:8), the Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4; 1 Corinthians 3:16). There are other verses that can be used, but this should be sufficient to show that God is revealed as one in essence and three in persons. I’ll close with the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:14:  “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”

Dr. Billy Elkins is the pastor of Trinity Church of Chickasha, OK. He is a graduate of Chickasha High School, has a B.A. in Fine Art from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, a Master of Divinity with Biblical Languages from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, FT. Worth, TX, and a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Philosophy from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. He and his wife Crystal have three sons, two daughters-in-law, and one Granddaughter. Billy enjoys time with his family, gardening, and reading alongside his dog, Luther. 


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