The doctrine of the trinity has an interesting mood surrounding it in the church today. It honestly has been a long time since I have heard a Christian call it into question. Fortunately it seems to be a doctrine that is left alone and simply believed these days without much doubt. Usually the doctrines that you will see attacked these days are perhaps the purpose of God in the death of Christ, or perhaps the need for the visible local church in the earth today, or perhaps the doctrine of a literal Hell.
Does this mean that we should leave the doctrine of the trinity alone while we are ahead? I certainly hope not. I find that if the devil is not attacking a central doctrine of the Christian faith, he is usually trying to bring its importance in our hearts to a place where he can allow us to ignore it when it really matters. We should never be afraid to talk about the difficult doctrines in scripture, even if we are not planning on losing them anytime soon.
To keep this brief, I would simply like to do my best to outline what the trinity is, and what it is not. I'll also do my best to say why it is important. Very often preachers like to use analogies to describe the trinity. Perhaps I will mention a few I have heard and mention what I like, but ultimately all analogies break down when it comes to the trinity.
Some that don't like to talk about the trinity like to mention the fact that the word trinity does not appear in the Bible. This is true. However, the church fathers had to come up with this term for a reason. There are pictures in the Bible of God revealing Himself this way as well as letters from the apostles describing Him this way that are undeniable. Probably my favorite example of this would be the baptism of Jesus. As he was baptized we saw him in human form as the Son of God. We then hear the voice of the Father come from Heaven. To top it all off, we see the Holy Spirit descend in the form of a dove. For those who are tempted to lean in a direction that overemphasizes the unity of God, the distinctness of the three persons of the Godhead could not be made more clear than this.
The most basic summary of what God as trinity means is that He is one being in three persons. We do not serve three Gods. At the same time, we must recognize that there is diversity within the unity of this one true God. I'm currently working my way through a book on basic Christian doctrine written by a group of Christian writers. The chapter that summarizes the trinity makes a few statements that I found very helpful. Here is one good summery:
"Sure enough, Scripture affirms that God is one God(Deut. 6:4). There are not three gods. It affirms that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father (e.g., Luke 22:42). And it affirms that all three are the one God (e.g., John 1:1). Each shares the essence and attributes of God and is God--Without being three gods! The one God subsists in three persons--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."
Clear as mud right? Some may find summaries like this to be too "theological" or too wordy, but I must say, if you know of a better way to honor scripture and avoid heresy, I would love to hear it. Statements like this took our church fathers much of the beginning of our church history to clarify. We should not be so arrogant as to flick them aside in the name of simplicity. We should never make our understanding of God more complicated than it needs to be, but finding "the bottom line" of Christianity should never be our goal. God is far to rich and has made himself far to knowable for us to do that.
The first few hundred years of the early church were spent weeding out several heresies concerning the trinity, among many other things, and I certainly don't have the time or the knowledge to outline it exhaustively. However I would like to point out two extremes that we must avoid. To start, I will mention a few analogies that have often been used.
Some have referred to God as if he is much like water. Water can be either be liquid, solid , or gas. All of them are water, but we see them in these three different modes. Another analogy similar to this goes something like this: I am a human being. I can be a son, a father, and a husband. All of these are different roles, but they are all the same person. Some may find these analogies helpful, but as I said, all analogies break down. So, what is wrong with these?
The extreme that these two pictures could possibly force us into is the heresy of modalism. This heresy, purely taught, states that there is one God, and His name is Jesus Christ. He presents himself in different times and in different ways. In the Old Testament, He presented Himself as God the Father. In the New Testament, he "became" the Son. We experience him now as the Holy Spirit. It is hopefully clear to you however, that Scripture presents the three persons of the trinity as far more distinct than this. The example of Christ's baptism should be the most obvious example of this. Each person of the trinity has existed in eternity from before time began simultaneously with one another.
A few other analogies would be those such as, God is a bit like and egg. There is shell, yolk, and white. All are distinct, but there is one egg, or God is like a human who has body, soul, and spirit. All are distinct, but there is one person. These I like a bit better, but of course they break down as well. Ultimately these analogies seem to make God a bit too separate from Himself. Even though these examples have distinct parts, they are not nearly as unified as the Godhead. This thinking also runs the risk of making one of the members of the trinity unequal with another. The one that usually goes down first is Christ.
This is one of the main problems in the theology of Jehovah's Witnesses. If my understanding is correct, they believe in Christ as an incarnation of the archangel Michael. I don't fancy myself an expert on Mormanism, but if I have read correctly, the divinity of Christ is also misrepresented by The Church of Latter Day Saints as well. Christ is looked at as "a" Son of God, but he is not seen as equal with God. According to their teachings, we have the potential to reach Christ's status as well.
So, why is the doctrine of the trinity so important? One reason I heard explained very well by Ravi Zacharias goes like this: In God we see an example of how all of creation ought to exist. We see both unity, and diversity simultaneously. One question that Muslims, who believe in the unity of God perhaps more than any other faith cannot answer is, if God was eternally loving before the creation of the universe, who was he loving before that creation began? With a biblical understanding of the trinity, we see that the three persons of the Godhead were in relationship before time existed.
Also, without a proper understanding of unity in diversity, we see problems arise in the way we look at the world. A problem we face in culture when we emphasise unity is that we will force all to conform in spite of their differences. This tends to be the problem with Islam. On the other end of the spectrum, however, when we emphasise diversity too much, we strive for it to the point where we are willing to defy God's clear instruction, and even logic itself. This leads us to the universalism that we see in our culture every day. Never before has a culture so existed where you find people who aren't even willing to defend the law of non-contradiction.
So, is the doctrine of the trinity important? No doubt. It may not be up for debate as much as it was at the beginning of our church history, but we must still do our best to understand it biblically and continue to teach it clearly.
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.