The Three Persons of the Trinity
Q: Is Jesus the Father and the Holy Ghost? And if so who was he praying to in the Garden?
A: Christians usually speak of the Trinity, that is One God who is three distinct persons. Although we cannot understand God’s triune nature, Scripture teaches it and we attempt to confess and teach it as simply as possible. We sometimes say, “The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God but the Father is neither the Son nor the Holy Spirit, the Son is neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son.”
When we speak of “God,” we sometimes mean the entirety of the Trinity while at other times we’re speaking about the Father. Showing that the Father is God, “Jesus said ... ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ (John 20:17)” Saint Paul acknowledged that the Father is God when he wrote, “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. (Ephesians 3:14-15)”
The Bible clearly calls both the Son and the Spirit God. Baptism in God’s name means baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19)” Seeing the resurrected Jesus, “Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20:28)” Paul wrote of “Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! (Romans 9:5)” In 1 John 5:20, we read that “Jesus Christ ... is the true God and eternal life.” Of the Spirit, Peter told Ananias that his “lie to the Holy Spirit” meant that he had “lied ... to God (Acts 5:3-4)” while Paul wrote that “you are God’s temple and ... God’s Spirit dwells in you. (1 Corinthians 3:16)”
Likewise, Scripture shows that the Son and the Spirit both possess attributes (qualities or characteristics) that belong to God alone. For example, the Son is eternal (John 1:1-2), unchangeable (Hebrews 13:8), almighty (Matthew 28:18), all-knowing (John 21:17), and omnipresent (Matthew 28:20). The Holy Spirit also is present everywhere at once (Psalm 139:7), omniscient (1 Corinthians 2:10), and eternal (Hebrews 9:14).
Jesus and the Holy Spirit also do those things that only God can do. Both the Son (John 1:3) and the Spirit (Genesis 1:2) were involved in the Creation. The Son forgives (Matthew 9:6), judges (John 5:27), and sustains Creation (Hebrews 1:3). And whereas only the holy God can sanctify (make holy) another being, Titus 3:5 tells of the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” — in other words, the Spirit makes us holy through Baptism.
In summary, God the Son prayed to God the Father, not only in the garden but throughout His earthly ministry. However, His prayers didn’t cease upon His resurrection and ascension. Even now, He “lives to make intercession (Hebrews 7:25)” for us with His Father. So also, God the Holy Spirit prays to God the Father: “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Romans 8:26)”
While while formalized Trinitarian teachings developed over time within Christianity, the belief in the Triune God was there in the Church’s earliest days. As happens so often in doctrinal development, it was only when contrary teachings were introduced that orthodox Christian theologians made Biblically sound, in-depth statements of faith on this topic.
Deviations from Trinitarian theology sprang up early and continue to the present. While many Christians are most concerned with Christological heresies, since they deal specifically with the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, any false teaching about God ultimately effects our understanding and confession of the Christ. Therefore, we continue to aggressively and thoroughly rebut doctrinal errors involving Pneumatology (the theology of the Holy Spirit), the Trinity, and all other aspects of the One True God, His nature, His attributes, His persons, and His work.
Concerning the Trinity, doctrinal departures from Biblical Christianity include Monarchianism, a general term for all teachings that God is so completely “one” that He cannot also be forever and always “three.” This belief system actually began in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries AD. It found two major expressions. Dynamic Monarchianism held that Jesus was a mere man — albeit one conceived by the Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary — whom God endowed with special gifts. A variation of this is called Adoptionism, which variously taught that Jesus was either true God by the Father but that His manhood was adopted into the Godhead rather than conceived. The Alogi denied that Jesus was the Logos and rejected the Gospel and Epistles of John.
The Theodotians were one of the groups that attempted to spread this false teaching throughout the Church. In the 3rd Century, the Artemonites sprang up as Artemon introduced his own variation on Monarchianism in Rome. We know little of him but considerably more about his disciple, Paul of Samosota.
Modalistic Monarchianism agrees that God is one but understands the Trinity differently from both the Dynamic Monarchians and orthodox Trinitarian Christians. Modalism denies that there are three persons, instead positing three modes or forms of God’s activity. According to this heresy, God revealed Himself as Father in the work of Creation, as Son in the work of redemption, and as the Holy Spirit in the work of sanctification. A branch of this heresy is Patripassianism, which teaches that the Father (patri) suffered (passianism) for our sins.
Modalists included Noetus and Praxeus. Another way of describing this false teaching is to speak of the persons of the Trinity as various masks that God takes up and sets aside, depending upon the circumstances. This form Modalism reached an early zenith under Sabellius. Sabellianism held that God, the absolute Monad, reveals Himself successively in three prosopa (Greek for faces), each of which represented the entire Monad. These were, in sequence, the Father (Creator and Lawgiver), the Son (Redeemer), and the Holy Spirit (Lifegiver). Contra Sabellius stood Dionysius of Alexandria.
Various forms of Monarchiansim exist to this day. These include Oneness Pentecostalism and Unitarianism. The church body most clearly expressing the Oneness doctrine is probably the United Pentecostal Church International while the best-known Oneness advocate is megachurch superstar T. D. Jakes. Meanwhile, Unitarianism simply levels the playing field by completely denying the Trinity and stating that God is absolutely “unipersonal.”
Earlier posts involving Jesus and the Holy Trinity include The Bible and the Trinity and Questions about God and Jesus.
Special thanks to Alex Klages’ A Beggar at the Table and the Christian Cyclopedia of the LCMS.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #560:2