3 The triune God

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit comprise the one God. That God is triune from eternity is attested by the self-revelations of God within the history of salvation, which makes clear that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have existed, created, acted, and sustained from the beginning.

In the old covenant God predominantly revealed Himself as God, the Father, whereas the activity of the Son and the Holy Spirit was still largely concealed from mankind. From the perspective of the New Testament, Apostle Paul declares that the Son of God was already present when the people of Israel made their way through the desert (1 Corinthians 10: 4). Beyond that, both Mark 12: 36 and Hebrews 3: 7 state that the Holy Spirit already spoke in the old covenant.

The incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, as well as the sending of the Holy Spirit, allow believers to recognise God as triune. In John 16: 13-15, Jesus Christ underlines the workings of the trinity of God: that which belongs to the Son also belongs to the Father, and that which the Holy Spirit declares, He takes from the Father and the Son.

The triune God is one God in the fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit. He seeks to make this fellowship of His accessible to mankind.

3.1 The nature of God Back to top

God, in His nature and activity, cannot be grasped by human understanding. Access to God in His omnipotence and greatness is only possible through faith. Jesus Christ revealed God to human beings as a loving, compassionate, and gracious Father, and enabled them to experience Him as such. Further revelations from God are given by the Holy Spirit who leads the faithful into the deep things of God (1 Corinthians 2: 6-16).

Characteristics of God's nature are: He is the One (the Only One), the Holy One, the Almighty, the Eternal, the Loving One, the Gracious One, the Righteous One, the Perfect One. God is neither unknown nor concealed. He inclines Himself to human beings, speaks to them, and allows them to speak to Him.

The description of the divine characteristics is to bring to expression the perfection and absoluteness of God, but all terms taken from the human sphere of experience will fail to do justice to the reality of God.

3.1.1 One God in three persons Back to top

The trinity of God is a mystery. The Trinitarian formula, "In the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit," does not use the plural "names", but the singular: "the name". The one God is the triune God. In His words to the Apostles, Jesus allowed them to recognise the trinity of God by stating that they were to baptise "in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28: 19). When we speak of God as "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit", we do not imply that these are three different Gods, but rather three persons (hypostases), who are the One God.

3.1.2 God, the One Back to top

Belief in God as the One God is one of the fundamental professions of both the Old and New Testaments. God Himself spoke to Moses of His oneness and faithfulness to Himself, which is expressed in His name: "I AM WHO I AM" (Exodus 3: 14). The profession of God's uniqueness–"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!" (Deuteronomy 6: 4)–remained with the people of the old covenant throughout their entire history.

Although already stated unequivocally in the First Commandment–"You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20: 3)–it was a long time before Israel professed the uniqueness of God to the exclusion of all other gods and their worship. Again and again, the prophets had to reproach the people for worshipping other gods. In Isaiah 45: 21-22, we find the words of God: "And there is no other God besides Me, a just God and a Saviour; there is none besides Me. Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other." After their return from Babylonian captivity, profession of the one God (monotheism) entered into the consciousness of the Jews as the essential distinguishing feature between them and the Gentiles. To this day, the belief expressed in the Wisdom of Solomon has been a distinguishing feature of Judaism: "For neither is there any God but [Thee]" (Wisdom of Solomon 12: 13).

This profession is also firmly rooted in Christian faith, from the earliest apostolic congregations until the present. Apostle Paul advocated monotheism without restrictions of any kind. With a view to the polytheism of the Greek and Roman religions, he wrote: "Therefore ... we know that ... there is no other God but one" (1 Corinthians 8: 4).

3.1.3 God, the Holy One Back to top

In the Old Testament God is repeatedly described as "the Holy One" (Isaiah 43: 3; Jeremiah 50: 29; Habakkuk 1: 12). The holiness which is part of God's nature, being, and rule, refers to the fact that He is majestic, untouchable, and separate from the profane. This is also attested in Revelation 4: 8 with the words: "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come" (Isaiah 6: 3). His word and His will are equally holy.

The nearness of God, the presence of the Holy One, which has been repeatedly experienced throughout the history of salvation, commands reverence for Him. That the presence of God is holy and that it demands reverence was experienced by Moses when he saw the burning bush and heard the voice of God: "Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground" (Exodus 3: 5). The holiness of God sanctifies the place where He reveals Himself.

Participation in God's holiness is both a gift and a duty: "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" (Leviticus 19: 2; cf. 1 Peter 1: 15-16). Thus every believer is called upon to strive for holiness, which derives from the holiness of God. Thereby the name of God is "hallowed", which is also expressed in the Lord's Prayer: "Hallowed be Your name" (Matthew 6: 9).

3.1.4 God, the Almighty Back to top

The profession in the First Article of Faith–"I believe in God the Father, the Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth"–attests that God can do anything, that nothing is impossible for Him, and that for Him there are no restrictions whatsoever in the implementation of His will. In Psalm 135: 6 this is expressed as follows: "Whatever the Lord pleases He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deep places."

God's omnipotence is also clearly shown to mankind in His creation, for by His word alone everything came into being from nothing (Hebrews 11: 3). In His omnipotence, God constitutes the beginning and the end: "'I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,' says the Lord, 'who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty'" (Revelation 1: 8). The new creation will therefore also be an expression of God's omnipotence.

Jesus Christ also spoke of the omnipotence of God: "With God all things are possible" (Mark 10: 27). His omnipotence was also attested by the angels: "For with God nothing will be impossible" (Luke 1: 37).

The omnipotence of God incorporates His omnipresence and omniscience. The omniscience of God is referred to in Psalm 139: 2-4: "You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, but behold, O Lord, You know it altogether." The same psalm also refers to God's omnipresence: "If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me" (verses 8-10).

3.1.5 God, the Eternal Back to top

God, "the Eternal", has neither beginning nor end. Temporal limitations do not exist for Him. "Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God" (Psalm 90: 2). God is the Creator and Lord of time. Unlike the material world, which is subject to time, God defines time in a sovereign manner. He grants time and can also take it away.

The eternal nature of God transcends the horizon of human experience. It is infinite, however, it is not timeless. Rather, the past, present, and future are all equally current to God. That God is exalted over, and stands above, the dimension of time is implied in 2 Peter 3: 8: "But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day."

3.1.6 God, the Loving One Back to top

In the old as well as in the new covenant, God reveals Himself as the Loving One. Out of love He elected the people of Israel and freed them from Egyptian captivity. However, God not only revealed Himself as the Loving One to the people of Israel in this historical act, but ultimately to all mankind in Jesus Christ: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3: 16). God not only turns to the world in love, but God is love (1 John 4: 16).

3.1.7 God, the Gracious and Righteous One Back to top

God is the Gracious One. His grace is part of His righteousness. He shows mankind grace, compassion, patience, and kindness (Psalm 103: 8). In His righteousness, God granted His people grace even when they went astray or did not keep the covenant: "'With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; but with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,' says the Lord, your Redeemer" (Isaiah 54: 8).

That God is the Gracious One is demonstrated in the new covenant by the fact that He turns to human beings, who are entangled in sin, and forgives their sins. Apostle Paul attests that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself" (2 Corinthians 5: 19). Through grace, God pronounces the unrighteous righteous, sinners receive forgiveness, and those in need of salvation are granted salvation, that is redemption.

God is righteous: "His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice" (Deuteronomy 32: 4). Statements like "For the wages of sin is death ..." (Romans 6: 23) or "Even so, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgements" (Revelation 16: 7) are clear expressions of His righteousness. In the new covenant it is He who, through Jesus Christ, grants sinners justification which they did not earn (Romans 3: 24-26; 5: 18).

3.1.8 God, the Perfect One Back to top

God is perfect. He requires no improvement, change, or any further development. He is the Unchangeable One and is free from all conditions and constraints. His actions are not based on external necessity, but solely on His completely sovereign will.

God revealed Himself to Moses as the Perfect One who is completely identical with Himself: "I AM WHO I AM" (Exodus 3: 14).

The perfection of God is closely linked to His goodness: everything that occurs in God, everything that emanates from Him or is created by Him, is perfect and good. God's perfection is also demonstrated by the fact that there is absolutely no difference of any kind between His will and His actions, between His intentions and their execution. Nor is there any failure with God, or any other thing that would be imperfect in itself. The creation shares in God's perfection and goodness, and it is for this reason that God finds His creation to be "very good" (Genesis 1: 31).

The perfection of God also incorporates the truth. With God there is no lie, deception, or uncertainty. "The entirety of Your word is truth" (Psalm 119: 160). The divine word is reliable. God binds Himself to His promises and is true.

The truth of God corresponds with wisdom. God rules and fills the entire creation with it: "Wisdom reacheth from one end to another mightily: and sweetly doth she order all things" (Wisdom of Solomon 8: 1).

God's perfection can be directly experienced in Jesus Christ, "the author and finisher of our faith" (Hebrews 12: 2) because He is perfect in His speech and conduct. Jesus Christ is the example and teacher of that perfection for which mankind is to strive (Philippians 2: 5).

The "goal for the prize of the upward call of God" (Philippians 3: 14)–in other words, perfectionis of an eschatological nature. Sinful human beings may well strive for perfection, but they will not attain it. Once they have been accepted at the return of Christ and permitted to partake in the new creation God will ultimately allow human beings to share completely in His perfection.

SUMMARY Back to top

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the one God, who has existed, created, acted, and sustained from the beginning. (3)

In His nature and activity, God cannot be grasped by human beings. Access to Him is only possible through faith. (3.1)

The one God is triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is not a reference to three Gods, but rather three persons (hypostases). (3.1.1)

Belief in the one God (monotheism) is among the fundamental professions of the Old and New Testaments, and is anchored in the Christian faith from the earliest apostolic congregations right up to the present. (3.1.2)

Holinessmajesty, inviolability, separation from the profaneis part of God's nature, being, and rule. His word and will are equally holy. (3.1.3)

God can do anything. There are no limitations of any kind for Him. His omnipotence also includes omniscience and omnipresence. (3.1.4)

God has neither beginning nor end. God's eternity is infinite, but not timeless. He is the Creator of time and thus superior to all dimensions of time. The past, present, and future are all equally current before Him. (3.1.5)

"God is love" (1 John 4: 16). He also shows Himself in history as a loving God. Above all, this becomes clear in the fact that He gave His Son for all humanity. (3.1.6)

God is the Gracious and Righteous One. He also demonstrates His grace in that He forgives sins. He grants the sinner righteousness through Jesus Christ. (3.1.7)

God is perfect. His works and ways are without flaw. His actions are based solely upon His completely sovereign will. God binds Himself to His promises and is true. God's perfection is directly perceptible in Jesus Christ. (3.1.8)

3.2 God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit Back to top

God has revealed Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus God can be recognised as the triune God. This self-revelation of God constitutes the basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. God's actions in history and creation are executed as the respective works of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God reveals Himself as Creator, Redeemer, Reconciler, and Maker of the new creation. God reveals His triune nature in Jesus' lifeat His baptism, transfiguration, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heavenas well as at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost: He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The mystery of the divine Trinity comes to expression in various ways in the Old and New Testaments. However, Holy Scripture does not mention the term or provide any doctrine on the Trinity. This doctrine was recognised and formulated in the early church on the basis of biblical evidence.

3.2.1 References to the triune God in the Old Testament Back to top

The first reference to the activity of the triune God is recorded in the first account of creation (Genesis 1: 1-31; 2: 1-4). There it states: "And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters" (Genesis 1: 2) and also: "Then God said, 'Let us make man in Our image, according to our likeness'" (Genesis 1: 26). "Elohim", the designation for God used in the original Hebrew text, is plural. It means "the Divine" as well as "gods" and should be understood, in light of the gospel, as a reference to the triune God.

The various divine manifestations, for example "Angel of the Lord" (Genesis 16: 7-11, 13; Exodus 3: 2-5; Judges 6: 11-16), "Spirit of God" (Genesis 1: 2), or "Spirit of the Lord" (Judges 3: 10; 1 Samuel 16: 13) are also interpreted as references to the mystery of the trinity of God.

The events and references in which the number three appears also allude to the Trinity:

  • The three messengers of God who visited Abraham (Genesis 18) are understood in Christian tradition as a reference to the mystery of the divine Trinity.

  • The activity of the triune God in the priestly blessing from Numbers 6: 24-26 is interpreted in the same way: "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace."

  • The angel's threefold praise in the inaugural vision of the prophet Isaiah is also considered an indication of God's trinity: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!" (Isaiah 6: 3).

3.2.2 References to the triune God in the New Testament Back to top

Although the New Testament does not contain a fully formulated doctrine of the Trinity, it nevertheless records events and formulations which clearly show the divine Trinity and its activity in the history of salvation. One example of the presence of the triune God can be found right at the beginning of Jesus' public activity, when, at His baptism, the Father and the Holy Spirit attest to the sending of the incarnate Son of God: "And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heaven parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, 'You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased'" (Mark 1: 10-11). The Son of God, as is revealed here, works in unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are also mentioned in the commission to baptise, which Jesus Christ gave His Apostles before His ascension into heaven (Matthew 28: 18-19).

Indicators of the bond between the persons of the Trinity can be found in the gospel according to John, which speaks of the oneness between the Son and the Father, and where Jesus Christ says: "I and My Father are one" (John 10: 30; cf. John 1: 1, 18). The promise of the Holy Spirit also attests to the trinity of God (John 16: 13-15).

There are further references to God's trinity in the epistles of the New Testament. They can be found in the praises of God as well as in the wording of certain blessings. Accordingly, 1 Corinthians 12: 4-6 states: "There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all." This passage refers as much to the uniqueness of God as to the different self-revelations of the divine persons. That God's activity provides evidence of His Trinitarian nature is also attested in Ephesians 4: 4-6: "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all." The salvific activity of the triune God is referenced in 1 Peter 1: 2: "... according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ."

A clear reference to God's triune nature is found in the wording of the blessing at the end of the second epistle to the Corinthians: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen" (2 Corinthians 13: 13).

3.2.3 The development of the doctrine of the Trinity Back to top

The recognition of God's triune nature and its doctrinal presentation already began shortly after the New Testament Scriptures had been written. To express these interrelations linguistically, ancient philosophical terms like "person" or "hypostasis", as well as "substance", were used. Formulating the doctrine of the Trinity served, on one hand, to put into words the understanding gained through faith, and on the other, to protect the faith against heretics who sought to convey an image of God which did not correspond to the testimony of the New Testament. The doctrine of the Trinity was formulated during the first councils of the fourth and fifth centuries.

The term "Trinity" was coined by Theophile of Antioch, who lived in the second half of the second century, but it was the church leader Tertullian (ca. AD 160-220) who made it popular. Tertullian emphasised the oneness of God: "one [divine] substance in three persons" (Latin: una substantia tres personae). He was also the first to apply the term "person" to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Council of Nicaea (AD 325) explicitly enshrined the divine oneness of substance of the Father and Son. The direct reason behind this was the doctrine of Arius (died AD 336), who argued that the pre-existent Son was created by the Father from nothing, which therefore constituted God's first act of creation. In opposition to this view, the council insisted that the Son was not created, but has been, from all eternity, part of the triune God.

This dispute, known as the "Arian controversy", did not come to an end with the Council of Nicaea, but went on until the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. This council brought to expression that the Holy Spirit is as much a divine personand true Godas the Father and the Son.

In the following years, the doctrine of the Trinity was, with few exceptions, generally accepted by Christendom. The deliberations over the doctrine of the Trinity had, however, not been concluded. Particularly under the influence of the Church Father Augustine (AD 354-430), the Western Church later emphasised that the Holy Spirit emanates equally from both the Father and the Son. In contrast, the Eastern Church maintained an older version of the Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople, which states that the Holy Spirit emanates from the Father through the Son.

The Reformers adopted the belief in the Trinity of God from the early church (second to sixth century). With the exception of the aforementioned divergent interpretation concerning the Holy Spirit, the doctrine of the Trinity is common to all Christian churches. It is among the most fundamental statements of the Christian faith and is an essential feature that distinguishes it from the two other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam.

At the eleventh church synod of Toledo (AD 675) it was proclaimed: "The Father is the same as the Son, the Son the same as the Father, the Father and the Son the same as the Holy Spirit, namely by nature one God."

3.2.4 The unity of the three divine persons Back to top

Christians profess the one triune God. Each of the divine personsFather, Son, and Holy Spiritis true God. The Christian faith states that GodFather, Son, and Holy Spirithas always existed, namely from eternity.

Accordingly, "Father", "Son", and "Holy Spirit" are not merely names that designate various modes of being and revelation of God. Rather the three names stand for divine persons who are different from one another in their being. The Father is actually not the same as the Son, and the Son not the same as the Father. The Holy Spirit is not the same as the Father or the Son. This is because the "Father" is the begetter, the "Son" the begotten one, and the "Holy Spirit" the one emanating from both.

The three divine persons are continually interrelated and are eternally one. The distinctiveness of the three divine persons does not dissolve God's oneness, for they are one nature, or substance. In them there is no contradiction of will. The Father is entirely in the Son, entirely in the Holy Spirit. The Son is entirely in the Father, entirely in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is entirely in the Father, entirely in the Son.

Christians profess that all acts of God in creation, salvation, and the new creation are acts of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. While all divine acts are, at the same time, acts of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, they are not always carried out in the same manner. Whereas creation was an act of God the Father and God the Son, it was neither God the Father nor God the Holy Spirit, but God the Son alone, who became incarnate. It was neither the Father nor the