From the beginning, the Christian church has proclaimed its fundamental belief in the triune God. The theological doctrine of the Trinity states that God has appeared at various times in history as three distinct, independent persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—while simultaneously existing as a single, unified being.
For most of us (myself included), this notion defies logic and exceeds our ability to comprehend it. Although the fundamental elements of this doctrine have been carefully stated by church leaders, teachers, and theologians throughout history, the question of how the Trinity operates or functions in reality remains a divine mystery.
It is with a sense of awe and wonder then that we recall the words of the famous hymn by Reginald Heber:
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God almighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
As we consider the topic of the triune God, I want to address a number of important questions about God:
- How do we learn about God?
- What can we know about God’s attributes, character, and nature?
- How does God relate to creation?
To begin, we may wonder how it is possible for humans to understand what God is actually like. At its core, Christianity is a revealed faith. That is to say, all we know about God is what He imparts to us through revelation.
Thankfully, God, through His abundant mercy and grace, has made Himself known to humanity in various ways, such as creation. The psalmist, for example, noted that, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2 NRSV).
In a similar way, the apostle Paul declared that, “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—God’s eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through the things God has made” (Romans 1:20 CEV).
God has communicated information about His character and being in other ways as well. God has shown us what He is like through events in history (such as the Exodus or Pentecost), through His word or instruction (Psalm 19:7-11), and ultimately through the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1,14). As a result of divine revelation, we can discover a lot about God.
For this article, I would like to highlight three aspects of God’s being.
1. God: The Eternal Being
From the time of the biblical writers until the present day, the people of God have repeatedly affirmed that God exists and that He is eternal in nature. This is clear from the opening statements of the Bible which read, “In the beginning, God created” (Genesis 1:1). The first words of Genesis indicate that God existed before time and creation began, and that His existence is not dependent upon the natural, material world.
Thus, God has no beginning or starting point—God just is! Because God’s eternal existence was a fundamental belief for the biblical writers, atheism (the belief that God does not exist) was not an option. The psalmist forcefully asserted, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God'” (Psalm 53:1 NRSV).
Moreover, since God has no origins and exists independently of creation and time, He is also the creative source for all that has come into being. Furthermore, the church affirms the eternal nature of God.
Just as God has no starting point or beginning, He also has no end. The biblical text highlights that God is “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 41:13, 106:48 NRSV), that He is “the living God and the everlasting King” (Jeremiah 10:10 NRSV), and that He “shall not die” (Habakkuk 1:12 NRSV).
The various names for God in the Old Testament also speak of His eternal nature. God is called El Olam, meaning the “eternal or everlasting God” (Genesis 21:33). God is also known by the name Yahweh. This name, which was revealed to Moses in the burning bush, is actually based on the Hebrew verb “to be,” the word for existence. Thus, the divine name Yahweh implies God’s eternal being. When Moses wanted to know God’s identity, God simply referred to Himself as “I am” (Exodus 3:14).1
2. God: The Creator of Heaven and Earth
The church also declares that the triune God is the Creator and sustainer of this universe and all this is contained within it. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the biblical writers affirm God’s creative activity.
The notion of God as Creator is so fundamental to God’s identity that it literally permeates all portions of Scripture.
References to God’s role as Creator can be found, for example, in the Pentateuch (Genesis 1-3), the Prophets (Isaiah 40:12-28, Jonah 1:9), the Psalms (8:1-8, 74:12-17, 104:1-35), and the Wisdom Literature (Proverbs 8:22-30, Job 38-39).
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul reinforced this idea when he refers to the God who made the world and everything in it as “Lord of heaven and earth.” This God made the world and everything in it. He is Lord of heaven and earth, and He doesn’t live in temples built by human hands. He doesn’t need help from anyone. “He gives life, breath, and everything else to all people” (Acts 17:24-25 CEV).
The doctrine of God as Creator is integral to Christian theology and occupies a central role in the cardinal doctrines of the church.
The Nicene Creed, for instance, affirms this belief in its opening statement, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen.” 2
As Creator, then, God rules as the sovereign Lord over everything that He has brought into existence. All of creation belongs to Him. Therefore, all creation is called upon to ascribe to the Lord praise and honor (Psalm 148:3-10).
Since God created everything for His glory, honor, and purpose, all of creation finds its deepest fulfillment and meaning in its Maker.
3. God: The Relational Being
In addition to being eternal and Creator, God is also relational in nature. That is to say, God desires a personal relationship with His creation.
Even though God is holy and transcendent, morally pure and righteous, perfect in wisdom and purpose, He covets to have fellowship with us—humans beset by frailties, weaknesses, and disobedience.
From the very beginning, God has shown His intentions to be intimately involved with us and the world He brought into existence. In Genesis 2-3, for example, God created the man and woman, walked with them in the garden, and enjoyed having regular communion with them.
Being relational in nature, God also entered into covenant relationships with His people at various times in history. In Hebrew, the word for covenant is berith. This term implies a binding or solemn agreement or oath made between two parties. It helped to define the roles of the parties involved, thereby setting the parameters and guidelines of the relationship.
God established this kind of relationship with Abraham, the father of the Israelite people (Genesis 15, 17), and with the people of Israel as well (Exodus 20-23). God, through His mercy and grace, not only initiated covenant and called the people into relationship with Him, but He also provided the means by which the covenant relationship could be maintained. For the people of Israel, God provided His instruction so that they would know how to live in a way that was pleasing to God.
God also instructed the people to construct the tabernacle, which symbolized the place where God’s presence dwelled among the community and where offerings and sacrifices could be made (Exodus 26:35-39).
Finally, God established the priesthood. The priests functioned as the mediators between God and the people. They served as the communicative link between God and Israel as they represented the people before God and God before the people (Exodus 28-29, 39).
The metaphors that the Bible uses at times to describe God also speak of God’s intimate relationship with humanity. God is portrayed as a loving parent who taught His child to walk and as one who lifts an infant to his cheeks (Hosea 11:3-4). The Bible also refers to people of Israel as God’s son (Hosea 11:1).
On other occasions, the intimacy between God and His people is depicted as a marriage relationship (Hosea 2). This extends into the New Testament when the believer who is adopted as a child of God refers to God with the endearing term “Abba Father” (Romans 8:15).
It is the relational nature of God, therefore, and His intense desire to have fellowship with us that made it necessary for God to reveal Himself later as a human being in the form of Jesus Christ and as spirit in the form of the Holy Spirit.
By choosing to take on the form of a human and spirit, God could relate to us in a more personal and intimate way.
Although the fundamental elements of this doctrine have been carefully stated by church leaders, teachers, and theologians throughout history, the question of how the trinity operates or functions in reality remains a divine mystery.
From the time of the biblical writers until the present day, the people of God have repeatedly affirmed that God exists and that He is eternal in nature.
I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible (The Nicene Creed).
It is the relational nature of God, and His intense desire to have fellowship with us, that made it necessary for God to reveal Himself later as a human being in the form of Jesus Christ and as spirit in the form of the Holy Spirit.
Kevin Mellish is professor of biblical studies at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois.
1 God also identifies himself in this verse as “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.”
2 Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Nashville: Nelson, 1995), 102.
Holiness Today, Jan/Feb 2014
Please note: This article was originally published in 2014. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.