God’s nature and character have been the central topic for many theologians throughout the centuries. This is not to assume that anyone is able to completely understand and know God for His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). However, it is to say that there is no greater joy than to desire to know God.
This section is only a cursory glance at the attributes of God, as this whole study will be examined for weeks to come. May the Lord grant you His wisdom as you worship Him in the study of His Word.
His Nature and Character
Incommunicable Attributes – Those attributes that God does not have in common or “communicate” to human beings.
1. Independence – God does not need anything from human beings to make up who He is. God is completely independent from His creatures. (cf. Acts 17:24-25; Job 41:11; Psalm 50:10-12). God never “needs” human beings to satisfy loneliness. Indeed, God’s glory was always full and wondrous even before the creation of the world: “5 And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (John 17:5). This correlates to the community nature of the Trinity, which assumes that there is full independence from creation, in light of the dependence between Father, Son, and Spirit.
2. Unchangeableness/Immutability – J.I. Packer writes:
“The sense of remoteness is an illusion which springs from seeking the link between our situation and that of the various Bible characters in the wrong place. It is true that in terms of space, time, and culture, they, and the historical epoch to which they belonged, are a very long way from us. But the link between them and us is not found at that level. The link is God Himself. For the God with whom they had to do is the same God with whom we have to do. We could sharpen the point by saying the exact same God.”1
God is the same God who continues to exist completely without change. However, Scripture seemingly posits that God does change. In Jonah 3:10, it says, “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them.” The word “relented” can also be translated as “repented.” Did God really repent, or change His mind? When Hezekiah prayed, and the Lord added 15 years to his life (Isaiah 28:1-6), did God change His mind there? Or when God made Saul king, or when He created humanity before the flood, and the biblical authors said God ”repented” or “regretted” doing those things, was God just being capricious?
The answer is a resounding, “No!”
1. There is the use of human language to describe God (also called “anthropomorphism”) and because language ultimately is limited, it can never fully describe God in the fullest. One person says, “God is stable, not static.” God is not a God that rules from above and waves a wand of arbitrariness of robotic creatures. God feels for His people. He has passions for them. So words like “repent” and “regret” genuinely express the heart of God. They are not meant for its literal sense.
2. But perhaps the most critical reason is that God responds to specific situations, consistent to His nature. This does not mean that God has not foreseen events. He is not taken off guard, and there is nothing left to “chance.” John Piper writes: “When the Bible says that God repents, it means that He expresses a different attitude about something than He expressed before, not because any turn of events was unexpected, but because the turn of events makes it fitting to express a different attitude now because of a change of circumstances.”2
God responds to His people! God does not shift like shadows, as James makes clear (James 1:17), but He actually has a relationship with His creation. God wants His people to delight in Him. This tension of God’s unchanging ways, and His responsiveness, is evermore a clear indication of God’s holiness and yet, grace for His people. You matter to God, and not just a deity who waffles back and forth, like some pagan god that desires ritual sacrifice. But a God who never changes but is indeed the same powerful God, over all creation, cares for you!
There are serious implications for a changing God. If God could change, then the change would be for better or for worse. If God changed for the better, then it would mean He was never perfect from the beginning. That would also mean it would be impossible to know when He would be best, when He would cease to change. There might be no limit to that change, meaning that eventually an omnipotent God of pure evil could reign over the universe. Without unchangeableness, there would be no way to place our faith and trust in Him.
Also, if God could change His purposes, then who’s to say that the whole redemptive plan could not be changed, and the work of Christ and the cross, scrapped for an alternative plan. What good would the promises of Scripture be if those promises can be changed at God’s whim. Perhaps, those plans have already been changed and He is no longer omnipotent, and even if He wants to keep those promises, He couldn’t. (Other subjects include: Process Theology, Impassability, Historicity)
The Bible makes it quite clear that God does not change, but is stable, consistent, and true to His very nature. (cf. Num. 23:19; Psalm. 33:11; Psalm 102:27; Heb. 6:17; James 1:17).
3. Omnipresence – God is not limited by space, but has the ability to be in all places and at all times; yet, He is also able to act differently to different situations. Because God is the Creator of the physical realm, He has the ability to move beyond anything physical. In fact, His spiritualness (John 4:24) means that those things which limit His creation, do not limit God. So Deuteronomy 10:14 reads: “14 To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.” Psalm 139 is perhaps the greatest text that speaks of God’s omnipresence (cf. 1 Kings 8:27; Psalm 139:7-10; Jer. 23:23-24; Acts 17:27-28).
4. Omnipotence – God can do all things and nothing can stop His power. He is able to carry any task that He so chooses to completion (cf. Genesis. 18:24; 2 Chron. 20:6; Psalm 147:5; Isaiah. 14:27; Isaiah. 43:13; Jer. 32:17; Dan. 4:35; Mark 10:27; Eph. 1:19-20).
5. Omniscience – 1 Cor. 2:10-11 says: “The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” In 1 John 3:20, he writes: “For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Omniscience is when God is able to discern all things at all times, and nothing is able to stop that knowledge (cf. Psalm 139:1-4; Isaiah 40:28; 46:10; Rom. 11:33; Heb. 4:13).
Communicable Attributes – Those attributes that God does have in common with humanity in which He does “communicate” to human beings.
1. Spirituality – God calls His people to worship in spirit because He Himself is spirit (John 4:24). So God calls His people to meet Him not just on the physical plane, but where he is.
2. Wisdom – God’s ability to choose that which is best, and in accordance with His plans and ways (cf. Psalm 104:24; Psalm 147:5; Jer. 10:7; Dan. 2:20-21; Rom. 11:33; Col. 2:2-3).
3. Faithfulness (Truthfulness) – God carries out all things to completion because He is completely dependable in His words, His promises, and His ways (cf. Dt. 7:9; 32:4; Josh. 23:14; Psalm 89:1-2, 8; Lam. 3:22-23; 1 Cor. 10:13; 1 Thess. 5:23-24; 2 Tim. 2:13; Heb. 10:23; 1 John 1:9).
4. Goodness – God is the “final standard of good”3 and so goodness is measured upon the very character of God (cf. Psalm 100:5; 145:8-9; Lam. 3:25; Matt. 5:45; Matt. 7:11; Acts 14:17; James 1:5, 17).
5. Love – God’s love is sacrificial in that God gives His love apart from human reaction. It is defined within Himself, and acts from within His own nature (cf. 1 John 4:8; John 17:24; John 14:31; John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). It is also God’s love which is the philosophical and moral ground to love others (Matt. 22:37-38; 1 John 5:3; 1 John 4:19).
6. Grace, Mercy, Patience – “God’s mercy means God’s goodness toward those in misery and distress. God’s grace means God’s goodness toward those who deserve only punishment. God’s patience means God’s goodness in withholding of punishment toward those who sin over a period of time.”4 The unifying theme of these three words is that God’s goodness acts first. There is nothing that compels Him to act in goodness. He simply acts as a means to glorify Himself. Texts that convey this message are… Grace and Mercy – Neh. 9:17; Psalm 103:8; Luke 1:54-55; Rom. 9:16; Eph. 1:6; 2:4-5; Titus 2:11; Titus 3:5; Patience – Num. 14:18; Psalm. 86:15; Rom. 2:4; Rom. 9:22; 2 Pe. 3:9; 2 Pe. 3:14-15.
7. Holiness – The word “holy” in its root meaning is “set apart, set aside.” But what would God be set apart for? The answer is that God is set apart for Himself. There is something so distinct in God, divinely distinctive, that there is absolutely nothing that can compare to Him. In His very nature He is. To define holiness is to define God. Then, maybe the best way to define holiness is to say “When God is God.” In reading the book of Leviticus, there’s a story about a boy who is stoned as a blasphemer because, “If anyone curses his God, he will be said to be responsible.” (Lev. 24:15) This seems to be a harsh punishment, until you understand the holiness of God. If holiness is truly God being God, then for God to do anything less than to uphold that holiness, makes him no longer God.
That’s why the OT is replete with holiness codes. God’s holiness covered the earth and so there are real-life implications. The OT seems to link God’s divine holiness to ethical considerations. The nation of Israel is to be holy, because God Himself is holy (Lev. 19:1). Ethics, how one lived, was rooted in the very nature of God. To disregard life in respect to God, was to disregard God Himself.
Holiness then, means that God is utterly incomparable, inexhaustible. He alone is God! (cf. Ex. 15:11; Lev. 11:44; Psalm 22:3; Isaiah. 6:1-8; 1 Pe. 1:15; Rev. 4:8)
8. Justice, Righteousness – God’s justice and righteousness assumes that God is the final standard for that which is just and right. Those things which God does then, are to be considered both right and just (cf. Dt. 32:4; Psalm 36:6; Psalm 72:2; Psalm 89:14; Psalm 98:9; Psalm 119:172; Acts 17:31; Rom. 3:25-26; 2 Pe 1:1). One might note that this seems to be a circular argument, especially in light of point #4. However, when the starting point is God (the essential presupposition), it would be right to say that goodness and justice do not come in conflict when God is the standard of both. Since God cannot contradict Himself, it would be right to say then that God upholds both goodness and justice simultaneously, without neglecting the other. The circle then, is broken at the presupposition. The argument would have to begin at the presuppositions (see Scripture, page 2).
“Try to explain it, you’ll lose your mind; but try to deny it, you’ll lose your soul.” 5
There is no more important doctrine to the Christian faith than the doctrine of the Trinity. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes: “There is no doctrine which shows so clearly what we agreed about at the very beginning – our absolute dependence upon the revelation that we have in the Scriptures. No human being would have thought of the doctrine of the Trinity. It comes directly from the Bible and from nowhere else at all. Men and women have thought of God; they have their gods; but no one has ever thought of the Trinity.”6 The Trinity does not mean that we believe in three Gods, but one. Scripture is quite clear in that truth. What Lloyd-Jones makes clear is that the place that the Trinity has in a right confession of faith, is not just vital to right doctrine, but also eternal consequences.
1. The word “Trinity” is not found anywhere in Scripture. However, its truth comes from clear inferences that form the current doctrine known as “Trinity.”
2. The Trinity is revealed in Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, with a fuller explanation and revelation coming from the New Testament.
3. The Trinity speaks of God in Three Persons.
4. The Trinity assumes that each person of God is fully divine in nature.
5. The Trinity assumes there is only one God.
Explanation of Presuppositions
The word “Trinity” is not found anywhere in Scripture. However, its truth comes from clear inferences that form the current doctrine known as “Trinity.”
1. Inferential language can and does promote propositional truth. Judging from the breadth of Scripture, there is enough evidence to support a doctrine and theology of the Trinity. Scholars for centuries have attempted to unravel the mystery of the Trinity, by using diverse language to describe this mystery. The Nicene Creed (see handout) was an attempt to handle the difficulty of language when describing the Trinity:
“And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, things in heaven and things on earth.”7
In many ways the Creed’s language only substantiated what was already known about Trinitarian theology, the Trinity is ultimately a mystery. Erickson puts it this way:
“Physicists have never fully and perfectly resolved the question of the nature of light. One theory says that it is waves. The other says that it is quanta, little bundles of energy as it were. Logically, it cannot be both. Yet, to account for all data, one must hold both theories simultaneously. As one physics major put it: ‘On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we think of light as waves; on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, we think of it as particles of energy.’ Presumably, on Sundays physicists do not concern themselves with the nature of light. One cannot explain a mystery; he can only acknowledge its presence.”8
The Trinity is revealed in Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, with a fuller explanation and revelation coming from the New Testament.
2. See sections on Trinity in OT and NT for presupposition 2.
The Trinity speaks of God in Three Persons.
3. The use of the word “person” to describe the Trinity comes from the truth that a person consists of a will, spirit, and a desire to act and live. Unlike animals which act on instinct, persons act with motive. In this sense then, God is a person, not a physical person, but a spiritual person (John 4:24-26) who acts for His own pleasure.
Christ is viewed as a person of the Trinity as John 1:1-2 tells us: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.” He is not only called God, but was “with” God signifying the distinction between Father and Son.
John 14:26 also distinguishes between Father, Son, and Spirit: “26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
The Trinity assumes that each person of God is fully divine in nature.
4. Scripture fully affirms the divinity of each person of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit. To deny this statement would lead to the ultimate rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Father being God is usually not a problem for most. But it is the Son being God, which has raised furious debate and has led to the formation of many cult groups. John 1:1-4 has been refuted by Jehovah’s Witnesses as a proof of Christ’s divinity. But there is ample evidence to prove that their assessment of the Greek New Testament is utterly flawed…
From Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology in Response To JWs
The translation “the Word was God” has been challenged by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who translate it “the Word was a god ” implying that the Word was simply a heavenly being but not fully divine. They justify this translation by pointing to the fact that the definite article (Gk. ho “the”) does not occur before the Greek word theos (“God”). They say therefore that theos should be translated “a god.” However, their interpretation has been followed by no recognized Greek scholar anywhere, for it is commonly known that the sentence follows a regular rule of Greek grammar, and the absence of the definite article merely indicates that “God” is the predicate rather than the subject of the sentence. (below, [14:12]) (A recent publication by the Jehovah’s Witnesses now acknowledges the relevant grammatical rule but continues to affirm their position on John 1:1 nonetheless.) (below, [14:13])
The inconsistency of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ position can further be seen in their translation of the rest of the chapter. For various other grammatical reasons the word theos also lacks the definite article at other places in this chapter, such as verse 6 (“There was a man sent from God”), verse 12 (“power to become children of God”), verse 13 (“but of God”), and verse 18 (“No one has ever seen God”). If the Jehovah’s Witnesses were consistent with their argument about the absence of the definite article, they would have to translate all of these with the phrase “a god,” but they translate “God” in every case.9
From the footnotes…
[14:12] This rule (called “Colwell’s rule”) is covered as early as chapter 6 of a standard introductory Greek grammar: See John Wenham, The Elements of New Testament Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), p. 35; also, BDF 273. The rule is simply that in sentences with the linking verb “to be” (such as Gk. eimi), a definite predicate noun will usually drop the definite article when it precedes the verb, but the subject of the sentence, if definite, will retain the definite article. So if John had wanted to say, “The Word was God,” John 1:1 is exactly the way he would have said it. (Recent grammatical study has confirmed and even strengthened Colwell’s original rule: see Lane C. McGaughy, Toward a Descriptive Analysis of EINAI as a Linking Verb in the New Testament [SBLDS 6; Missoula, Mont.: SBL, 1972], esp. pp. 49-53, 73-77; and the important review of this book by E.V.N. Goetchius in JBL 95 : 147-49.)
Of course, if John had wanted to say, “The Word was a god” (with an indefinite predicate, “a god”), it would also have been written this way, since there would have been no definite article to drop in the first place. But if that were the case, there would have to be some clues in the context that John was using the word theos to speak of a heavenly being that was not fully divine. So the question becomes, what kind of God (or “god”) is John talking about in this context? Is he speaking of the one true God who created the heavens and the earth? In that case, theos was definite and dropped the definite article to show that it was the predicate noun. Or is he speaking about some other kind of heavenly being (“a god”) who is not the one true God? In that case, theos was indefinite and never had a definite article in the first place.
The context decides this question clearly. From the other uses of the word theos to mean “God” in vv. 1, 2, 6, 12, 13, et al., and from the opening words that recall Gen. 1:1 (“In the beginning”), it is clear that John is speaking of the one true God who created the heavens and the earth. That means that theos in v. 2 must be understood to refer to that same God as well.10
[14:13] The argument is found in a detailed, rather extensive attack on the doctrine of the Trinity: Should You Believe in the Trinity? (no author named; Brooklyn, N.Y.: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1989). This group apparently deems this booklet a significant statement of their position, for page 2 states, “First printing in English: 5,000,000 copies.” The booklet first advances the traditional argument that John 1:1 should be translated “a god” because of the absence on the definite article (p. 27). But then it later acknowledges that Colwell’s rule is relevant for John 1:1 (p. 28) and there admits that the context, not the absence of the definite article, determines whether we should translate “the Word was God” (definite) or “the Word was a god” (indefinite). Then it argues as follows: “… when the context requires it, translators may insert an indefinite article in front of the noun in this type of sentence structure. Does the context require an indefinite article at John 1:1? Yes, for the testimony of the entire Bible is that Jesus is not Almighty God” (p. 28).
We should note carefully the weakness of this argument: They admit that context is decisive, but then they quote not one shred of evidence from the context of John 1:1. Rather, they simply assert again their conclusion about “the entire Bible.” If they agree that this context is decisive, but they can find nothing in this context that supports their view, they have simply lost the argument. Therefore, having acknowledged Colwell’s rule, they still hold their view on John 1:1, but with no supporting evidence. To hold a view with no evidence to support it is simply irrationality.
The booklet as a whole will give an appearance of scholarly work to laypersons, since it quotes dozens of theologians and academic reference works (always without adequate documentation). However, many quotations are taken out of context and made to say something the authors never intended, and others are from liberal Catholic or Protestant scholars who themselves are questioning both the doctrine of the Trinity and the truthfulness of the Bible.11
Another text that is debated by Jehovah’s Witnesses but clearly exhibit the divinity of Christ is from John 20:28, when Thomas finally realizes who Jesus is: “28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Here is a direct reference to Jesus being called, not just Lord, but “God.” But listen to the JW’s explanation for this text:
[14:14] The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ booklet Should You Believe in the Trinity? offers two explanations for John 20:28: (1) “To Thomas, Jesus was like “a god,’ especially in the miraculous circumstances that prompted his exclamation” (p. 29). But this explanation is unconvincing, because Thomas did not say, “You are like a god,” but rather called Jesus “my God.” The Greek text has the definite article (it cannot be translated “a god”) and is explicit: ho theos mou is not “a god of mine” but “my God.”
(2) The second explanation offered is that “Thomas may simply have made an emotional exclamation of astonishment, spoken to Jesus but directed to God” (ibid.). The second part of this sentence, “spoken to Jesus but directed to God,” is simply incoherent: it seems to mean, “spoken to Jesus but not spoken to Jesus,” which is not only self-contradictory, but also impossible: if Thomas is speaking to Jesus he is also directing his words to Jesus. The first part of this sentence, the claim that Thomas is really not calling Jesus “God,” but is merely swearing or uttering some involuntary words of exclamation, is without merit, for the verse makes it clear that Thomas was not speaking into the blue but was speaking directly to Jesus: “Thomas answered and said to Him “My Lord and my God!”‘ (John 20:28, NASB). And immediately both Jesus and John in his writing commend Thomas, certainly not for swearing but for believing in Jesus as his Lord and his God.12
The response of Thomas invokes John to comment: “30 Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). Basically, that the Gospel was written so that people might confess that Jesus is God.
Jesus is also referred to as God in Titus 2:13 – “13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1:1 says, “To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours…” Romans 9:5 says, “5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.”13
The Holy Spirit is referred to as God in texts like Acts 5:3-4: “3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.” Other texts also refer to the Spirit being God (cf. Psalm 139:7-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:4-6; 1 Pe. 1:2; Jude 20-21).
The Trinity assumes there is only one God.
5. Although there are three persons of the Trinity, there is only one God. Deuteronomy 6:4-5 says, “4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.” God is one and this central tenet is key to the Christian faith. 1 Kings 8:60 makes this quite clear: “60 so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God and that there is no other.” Ultimately, Paul knows that there must be only one God, and this is not just part of the OT, but the core of the NT as well: “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Cor. 8:4-6).
The Trinity in the OT
1. Genesis 1:26 – “Let us make man in our image”
Some have tried to explain the plural as a plural of royalty like, “We are pleased to grant your request.” However, this is not consistent with Hebrew grammar usage in the OT. Also, there is the theory that it is God speaking to angels. But Scripture never includes the angels in the creation process. The last conclusion is the plurality of God Himself, speaking in the midst of the Trinity. (cf. Gen. 3:22; Gen. 11:7; Isa. 6:8).
2. Psalm 110:1 – “The LORD says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’”
Jesus is the one who notes that David is referring to two separate persons other than himself (Mt. 22:41-46). David was clearly seeing God the Father talking to God the Son, as the Messianic king who would rule the world.
3. Isaiah 63:10 – “But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit”
Not only is God grieved, but along with the Father is “His” Holy Spirit also grieved, making a distinction between the two persons.
4. Malachi 3:1-2 – There is a distinction between the “Lord whom you seek” and “he LORD of hosts.” From the context, the people will seek after the one who was sent by the LORD, who will be their “Lord.”
5. Hosea 1:7 – “I will deliver them by the LORD their God.” The Lord, speaking through Hosea, says that He will deliver by Yahweh and Elohim.
6. Isaiah 48:16 – “And now the Lord God has sent Me, and His Spirit.” This one sentence can have full ramifications of the whole Trinity being present. God the Father has sent the Son, and His Spirit.
The Trinity in the New Testament
1. Matthew 3:16-17 – “16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” In this text there is the work of all three persons of the Trinity acting together for the completion of the redemptive mission.
2. Matthew 28:19 – “19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” It would be the name of Father, Son, and Spirit that would empower the believers to spread the Gospel to the nations.
3. 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 – “4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.” [Italics added] This text uses different names for the same bestower of gifts. The NT usually uses “God” to refer to the Father, “Lord” to refer to the Son, and “Spirit” to refer to the Spirit. Notice that the names here are used interchangeably.
4. Ephesians 4:4-6 – “4 There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Again, the names “Spirit,” “Lord,” and “God” are used to describe the unity of the persons of the Trinity.
False Teachings Concerning the Trinity
1. Modalism (a.k.a. Sabellianism) – This was the belief that God actually exists in three “modes” at different times. So God exists in “Father” mode at one point in time, “Son” mode when on earth, and “Spirit” mode in certain occasions. The name Sabellianism comes from a proponent of this theology who lived in 3rd century Rome. Although this solves the problems of God’s existence, it created new ones. “The modalistic solution to the paradox of threeness and oneness was, then, not three persons, but one person with three different names, roles, or activities.”14 Modalism denies the truth of Scripture, particularly when Jesus says, “I and the Father one” (John 10:30) and “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Modalism assumes there is no relationship within the Trinity, since all three modes cannot exist simultaneously. But this relationship is critical to the whole understanding of God’s redemptive plan which relies on an eternal God, sending His Son, who is the perfect representation of Himself as God, to die so that humanity might live.
2. Arianism – Arius was a bishop of Alexandria who was condemned at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. He taught that the Son and the Spirit were created by the Father, and even though they existed before creation, they never obtained equality with the Father. They took texts like John 1:14; 3:16, 18; Col. 1:15; 1 John 4:9 and used the word “begotten” as a way of saying that Jesus was given birth physically and spiritually by the Father. The Nicene Creed then, attempts to correct this misrepresentation by saying, “begotten, not made.”
Another form of Arianism held that the Son was eternal and divine, but not equal to the Father. The Son was “subordinate” to the Father, and hence this is often called subordinationism.
The Trinity is not a point of anti-intellectualism, nor is it a blunt contradiction. Grudem is right to point out that there is an important distinction between contradiction and paradox:
But it should also be said that Scripture does not ask us to believe in a contradiction. A contradiction would be “There is one God and there is not one God,” or “God is three persons and God is not three persons,” or even (which is similar to the previous statement) “God is three persons and God is one person.” But to say that “God is three persons and there is one God” is not a contradiction. It is something we do not understand, and it is therefore a mystery or a paradox, but that should not trouble us as long as the different aspects of the mystery are clearly taught by Scripture, for as long as we are finite creatures and not omniscient deity, there will always (for all eternity) be things that we do not fully understand.
Such a view is not only logical, but critical to the believer. Scripture never commands us to forget logic. Rather God, who is quite capable (and sometimes does) of moving outside of time and space, generally acts within the historical-redemptive timeline. He uses historical Scripture to speak objective truth. The Trinity is not a suspension of that truth, but an oncoming elaboration of ultimate truth, the Truth of God Himself. So John with firm assurance, writes: “But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
So Louis Berkhof explains that the church’s ultimate desire to understand the Trinity, is really the quest to know God Himself:
The Trinity is a mystery … man cannot comprehend it and make it intelligible. It is intelligible in some of its relations and modes of manifestation, but unintelligible in its essential nature…. The real difficulty lies in the relation in which the persons in the Godhead stand to the divine essence and to one another; and this is a difficulty which the Church cannot remove, but only try to reduce to its proper proportion by a proper definition of terms. It has never tried to explain the mystery of the Trinity but only sought to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity in such a manner that the errors which endangered it were warded off.15