The Godhead is a quite complex and difficult matter to understand, and it is compounded by a multitude of misunderstandings and apprehension on the part of many. It is always difficult for humans to attempt to understand the nature of God, just as it is hard for clay to try to figure out the potter: we are finite, and God is infinite; we are dust and He is Spirit; He is infinitely greater than ourselves (Isaiah 55:8-9). Any attempt to understand God’s nature must be predicated with the reality that we cannot understand much beyond what God has revealed about Himself to us. Never should we allow our own thinking or our own limitations to cause us to limit God, for God will always be greater than the box in which we would seek to place Him. On the other hand, God, so to speak, has put Himself in His own box, revealing many things about His nature to His creation that can and should be understood.
The nature of the Godhead has been a source of great contention throughout history. The first millennium of Christianity was spent in various disputations regarding the nature of God: the nature of the constituency of the Godhead, the supremacy of Persons in the Godhead, the human and divine nature of Christ, and so on and so forth. It also has represented a stumbling block to other religions: Christianity has posited many gods in the eyes of both Jews and Muslims since Christians posit three Persons in the Godhead, and not God of a singular Person. These difficulties make it all the more important for us to understand the nature of God as revealed in the Scriptures.
Let us begin with the Father. The Scriptures throughout reveal that the Father is God (e.g. John 8:42, Romans 1:7). The Father was before the beginning, and is the Creator (Genesis 1:1). The Father also is the source of all authority; He grants the Son authority in Matthew 28:18, and we read the following in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28:
Then cometh the end, when he shall deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have abolished all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be abolished is death. For, He put all things in subjection under his feet. But when he saith, All things are put in subjection, it is evident that he is excepted who did subject all things unto him. And when all things have been subjected unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subjected to him that did subject all things unto him, that God may be all in all.
Paul teaches us many things of value in this passage. We see that the Father is not subject to Christ, for “He is excepted who did subject all things unto Him” (v. 27). We also learn that at the last trump, the Son will restore all authority back to the Father and subject Himself to the Father, “that God may be all in all” (v. 28). We understand, therefore, that the Father is the source of all power and authority.
The Father is spirit, as is indicated by John 4:24. John 1:18 and 1 John 4:12 indicate that God has not been seen at any time; this means that the Father in His full, spiritual, glorious form has never been seen by the eyes of men. This will have implications for the Son, as we will see; nevertheless, one could ask what it is that people of old saw when they said that they saw God. It could have been the Son, as has been suggested by many, or perhaps a manifestation of the Father’s glory but not the full glory itself, or perhaps an angel or some other delegated authority from God. Regardless, we may be sure that no one, at any time, in the flesh has seen the fullness of the Father in spirit.
When we consider the Son, we see that the Son is described as the Word, manifest in the flesh (John 1:1, John 1:14, 1 John 1:1-3). The Word, or the Son, is indeed God, as is made manifest by John 1:1, John 8:58, John 10:30-36, John 20:28, Romans 9:5, and Colossians 2:9. The Word was present and active during the creation (Genesis 1:27, John 1:2-3, Colossians 1:15-16); it is even possible that the Word was the executor of the creation by the will of the Father. The Son, on account of His humiliation, was glorified by the Father (Philippians 2:5-11), and now has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). He will restore this authority, as indicated above, on the last day, and He remains subject to the Father (1 Corinthians 15:24-28, John 14:28).
The Scriptures reveal that the Son partakes of two natures. He is the Son of Man– fully human. John 1:14 reveals that the Word became flesh, and those who would not confess that Jesus came in the flesh were disfellowshipped (2 John 1:7-9). Jesus also is the Son of God– it is the Word that becomes flesh, and is no less the Word, God and with God, by being such (John 1:14). Paul indicates that “in Him dwells the fullness of Deity in bodily form” in Colossians 2:9, and while in the flesh He confessed that He was God (John 8:58, John 10:30-36). While it may not be easy for humans to understand how the power of Deity could be contained within a human vessel, “with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).
The Son came to reveal the Father, both in terms of His will and purpose as well as the nature of the Father (John 1:18, John 14:9). Even though humans cannot see God, it is enough to see Jesus– he who sees Jesus has seen the Father; he who knows Jesus knows the Father.
The Holy Spirit is distinct from the Father– He hovers over the water in Genesis 1:2, and descends on Jesus as a dove in Matthew 3:15-17 while the Father speaks from above. In 2 Peter 2:21, we see how the Holy Spirit is identified with God:
For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.
Men “spake from God…moved by the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit’s role is too often interchanged with that of God for us to believe that He is not God, as is further indicated by 1 Peter 1:2, Jeremiah 31:33-34/Hebrews 10:15-17, and many other passages.
The Holy Spirit reveals the will of the Father and the Son to man– He was the Comforter that came to the Apostles, leading them into all truth, bringing to their remembrance all that Jesus taught them (John 14:16-17, John 15:26, John 16:13). He had previously directed the prophets of old, as indicated in 2 Peter 1:21. The Spirit also has a role in sanctifying man, as indicated in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 and 1 Peter 1:2; Romans 8:16, 26-27 would seem to indicate that the Spirit bears witness with our own spirits, and that the Spirit also has a intercessory prayer role for the believer.
We see, therefore, that the Bible makes strong claims for the Father being God, the Son being God, and the Holy Spirit being God. It would also seem, from the Scriptures, that all Three represent YHWH, that even though the Israelites may not have understood the triune nature of their God, that YHWH in reality has always been Three in One. God speaks in the plural regarding Himself in Genesis 1:27; since there is no indication that humans are made in the image of angels, it is hard to believe that God is doing anything but speaking amongst Himself as His three Persons. The Father is clearly YHWH, as is evident from John 8:41-4, 54, along with many other passages. The Son also claims to be YHWH, as indicated in John 8:58:
Jesus said unto them, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was born, I am.”
“I am,” of course, is exactly what YHWH means, as indicated in Exodus 3:14. The Jews picked up stones with which to stone Jesus in John 8:59 for exactly this reason: Jesus declared Himself to be YHWH! Further testimony to this can be found in 1 Corinthians 10:9, and the fact that He is continually called “Lord” (Greek kurios) in the New Testament, the very same translation for YHWH in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament, which uniformly translates YHWH as kurios).
The Holy Spirit also represents YHWH, especially since YHWH and the Spirit of YHWH are constantly interchanged and intertwined (e.g. Ezekiel 11:5, etc.). The fluidity between the two cannot be coincidental! YHWH is said to speak when the Holy Spirit speaks, as is indicated by a comparison of Isaiah 52:11 with 2 Corinthians 6:17, and Jeremiah 31:33-34 with Hebrews 10:15-17, among others. It seems quite clear, therefore, that YHWH has always represented one God in Three Persons.
Despite all of this, the testimony of the Scriptures are clear:
Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God; the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
I am the LORD, and there is none else; besides me there is no God (Isaiah 45:5a).
So God is one, yet we have three Persons, as indicated by the revelation of God. How can this be? How does it work?
One ancient solution was to declare that God really was one, and He simply had different modes. This position is known as modalism, patripassianism, or monarchianism; it is seen in Oneness Pentecostalism to this day. Using a limited modern analogy, we can consider a man who has three particular jobs: he may put on the father’s hat in the morning, the businessman’s hat during the day, and the husband’s hat in the evening, but he always remains one and the same person. Thus it was posited that even though God sometimes was the Father, other times the Son, and other times the Spirit, He was always the same God.
While this concept may be efficient, it does not adequately address what God has revealed. In Matthew 3:15-17, the Son is immersed in water while the Spirit descends upon Him as a dove and the Father speaks from Heaven; while it is possible that God could be the same God doing all three at once, it strains credibility. Perhaps the greatest detriment to this view comes from John 8:17-18:
Yea and in your law it is written, that the witness of two men is true. I am he that beareth witness of myself, and the Father that sent me beareth witness of me.
It is clear that Jesus here demonstrates a distinction of Persons between Himself and His Father– it is not possible for the Father and the Son to represent two witnesses if the Father is the Son, and vice versa. It also renders Jesus to be quite odd– if He is the Father, Son, and the Spirit, He would be praying to Himself (Luke 22:41-43), asking Himself to forgive those who crucified Him (Luke 23:34), and told Mary that He had not yet ascended to Himself (John 20:17). Above all this, such a view requires the idea that the Father was also on the cross, suffering from sin, and becoming a curse (hence, “patripassianism”; Galatians 3:13), a position that is blasphemous. Therefore, while it may be appealing to posit a modalistic view of God, it does not square with what God has revealed about Himself.
Instead we turn to a trinitarian belief– God is Three in One, and One in Three. This concept is often difficult for people to understand, mostly because it is difficult to express and explain and there are more misunderstandings afoot than proper understandings. I find great value in the thoughts of Tertullian, a North African Christian of the late second/early third century, who wrote regarding the nature of God in a treatise entitled Against Praxeas. Tertullian is quite early, perhaps the “church father” least tainted with Hellenistic philosophies, and who delineates what the Trinity is and what the Trinity is not quite well.
God is one in His economy– not economy as we often consider it, in terms of money and finances, but the Greek oikonomos, the matters of the household. God is one in purpose, substance, and power and authority. The three Persons of the Godhead are distinct in degree, form, and aspect: degree in that the Father is greater than the Son, and both are greater than the Spirit; form in that the Son took on flesh, the Father is spirit, unseen by men, and since the Spirit proceeds from the Father, the Spirit is similar but not precisely as the Father (just as anything proceeding out of another is similar, inseparable, but yet somewhat different); aspect in that the Father is the authority, the Son is the executor, and the Spirit is the revelator and sanctifier. The three Persons are different not in diversity but distribution (being the same substance), different not by division but by distinction (being inseparable), and different in dispensation.
[God is] One only substance in three coherent and inseparable Persons” (Tertullian, Against Praxeas, 7).
When we consider this, we can understand how God can be three Persons and yet be one: God is inseparable. The Father is in the Son as the Son is in the Father (John 10:30, John 17:11, 21-23). The Spirit is with the Father and the Son (Romans 8:9, Isaiah 61:1/Luke 4;18, John 14:16, John 15:26). The hangup that has caused so many to misunderstand is the a priori assumption that if God is one, God must be one in person. This assumption, as we can see, is unwarranted: God is sufficiently inseparable and singular in purpose and power to be considered “one”. When Isaiah writes that YHWH is one and there is no other, he speaks of other gods like Baal and Marduk, and does not have the three Persons comprising YHWH in view. Christianity is not polytheistic, for we do not believe in many gods, separate from each other, with competing wills and competing values. Christianity is a religion of one God manifest in three Persons, inseparable, of the same substance (spirit) and purpose, with distinctions in degree, form, and aspect.
Certain images can be used to help illustrate the concept, allowing for the deficiencies thereof. We could perhaps compare the Godhead to a tree. A tree has roots, the trunk and leaves, and either fruits or nuts. We recognize that there is a singularity with the tree, even though it is made up of distinct objects having different functions. There is one tree with three inseparable parts: the roots with no tree have no value; a tree with no roots has no grounding or life; a tree and roots without fruit has no means of multiplication. Likewise, we can have a fountain that flows into a river which empties into a lake: three different forms, but the same substance traveling through them. We can also consider an image from the Scriptures:
“For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh.”
This mystery is great: but I speak in regard of Christ and of the church (Ephesians 5:31-32).
Ephesians 5:31 is a quotation of Genesis 2:24, in which God establishes His concept of marriage. In marriage, the husband and wife, being two persons, become “one flesh”. There are two distinct persons, and yet they are to make up a singular unity– in purpose, in mind, an inseparable bond (cf. Matthew 19:4-6). Paul applies the image to Christ and the church, for the church is His body (Colossians 1:18, Ephesians 5:29-30). The church and Christ are to be one, just as a husband and wife are one– there are “two”, really, but they function as one. In fact, the church itself demonstrates the same concept: according to 1 Corinthians 12:12-28, even though the church is comprised of millions of different people having their own abilities and functions, all of them are to work together to comprise a coherent whole. We can see, therefore, that it is not a stretch to accept the idea that there can be a singularity– “one”– even though multiple persons are involved.
Can we understand all the intricacies of the nature of God? Far from it. We the clay will wonder about the Potter until we meet Him and be with Him for all eternity. Nevertheless, we can strive to understand what He has revealed about Himself in the Scriptures, and trust within it. Let us never be guilty of limiting God by accepting only that which makes sense to us about God, but let us seek to understand Him as He has revealed Himself!