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What is the Trinity?

The Trinity is one of the important doctrines of classical Christian theology in which God is depicted as being manifest in "three persons:" God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three persons, but one God.

This concept of the triune God emerged in the third and fourth centuries (C.E.) as leaders of the church attempted to communicate a faith that had arisen within first century Judaism into a new language and a very different culture: that of the hellenized Greco-Roman world, several hundred years after the time of Christ.

Jews and Muslims, in particular, are troubled by the Trinity because it appears that in this notion of "the one in three," Christians have abandoned monotheism and have, in fact, exchanged the One God for many. Some Christians share these concerns about the Trinity, most notably, Unitarians and Universalists. Several of the "founding fathers" of the United States, including Thomas Jefferson, shared this concern.

The classic and brief statement of the Trinitarian faith is, of course, the Nicene Creed, which bears the name of the Council of Nicea (325 C.E.), but was not approved until the Council of Constantinople (381 C.E.).

The intensity of the debate over how to define the Trinity was one of the presenting issues that resulted in the split between Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

Vigorous discussion of the doctrine continues.

It should be noted that the doctrine of the Trinity does not appear in, nor is taught by the Bible. Rather, theologians have woven the doctrine out of various words and phrases in the Bible.

Some have suggested, and I tend to agree, that rather that conveying deep truth about the nature of God, the trinity may be best understood as an expression of the way in which Christians have experienced God since the time of Christ.

Like Jews and Muslims, Christians experience God, of course, as the Creator, the source of all. By contrast to the experience of Jews and Muslims, however, Christians place Jesus at the very heart and center of their faith, affirming out of their experience of Jesus that he is not just another teacher or prophet, rather he is the unique expression of God as love. Because the love of God was so perfectly expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Christians affirm that Jesus was and is divine.

Returning to the point where there is considerable agreement between Christians, Muslims and Jews ... Christians also affirm that God is Spirit, not just the first cause and Creator of the world, but a living presence, who is active in the here and now.

In Christian worship, the sacraments are the unique rituals in which the Spirit is experienced most powerfully, but Christians also find evidence of the Spirit in personal relationships, in nature, in music, in the arts, and in the activity of daily life. The Spirit is God's creative presence in the world.

Bottom line: While rational explanations of it have never been fully satisfying, and while confusion and sometimes controversy about the doctrine continue, Christians persist in thinking of God as being know to them in three forms: As powerful Creator, as a redeeming and loving person, Jesus Christ, and as a living and active presence in their lives which could be nothing less than Spirit Divine. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or in a more contemporary paraphrase: God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all.


Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2015).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2017).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.
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