How is it that the persons of the Trinity are both together and apart?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Did God the Father and Holy Spirit also die on the cross? I know we can never understand the nature of the Trinity, but even though they are three people, they are also one. So, was Jesus also simultaneously in heaven with God the Father and on Earth with the Holy Spirit? Because they are not one but three, do they all experience everything that one does separately? I know we can't really know for sure ... but is it possible to know at all? 

Answer: What a great question! You’ve been probing below the surface of God’s word — that’s for sure. In fact, we’ll have to make use of some specialized terms to address some of the issues that your question raises. You see, we have plenty of biblical data on the subject of the Trinity… but the data does not explain itself! So we’ll need to pull heavily from philosophy (for logic’s sake) and from theology (for orthodoxy’s sake) to analyze the data systematically. However, I will never be able to explain the Trinity in a “felt-knowledge” kind of way… I mean… in the entire human experience, there is no analog to the Trinity! But I can address your question using a plausible trinitarian model that violates neither logic nor orthodox doctrine.

The vast majority of Christians subscribe to “the doctrine of the Trinity” … but they do so in a creed-like affirmation rather than by “studying things out” for themselves. If they did, they would probably be surprised that the word trinity does not even appear in the Bible. The concept does, however — but this makes things tough right out of the blocks: The thing that we cannot do for the skeptic is point to a passage and say, “There it is — right there!”… because it’s not.

But within this restriction lies a powerful truth: God simply reveals himself in three persons throughout the Scripture — but he does this without using the word Trinity, and he does this without “getting all doctrinal” on us. Therefore, we (the targets of his revelation) have to deal with this revelation — and it is to my great advantage that a succession of Christian thinkers have vetted the trinitarian concept for many centuries, and they have affirmed and declared that our God is one in essence — yet three in person… and describing how this works forces us the break out our specialized vocabulary.

Ontology is the study of the nature of being, and when we consider the essence of being, we see that some aspects are intrinsic to an entity and some are not. Typically, we look for aspects that are necessary in an entity in order for it to be what it is, and we separate them from aspects that are unnecessary or contingent in that being. (I know… even my eyes are glazing over.) Concerning the Trinity then, we must consider the ontological aspects of the Godhead itself (the Trinity has its own intrinsic qualities) — but also that of the individual persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Now, even though we will never have the “felt-knowledge” of how one can be three or three can be one, we will still be able to identify some of their distinct ontological structures. And once we see those, then we can address your question… but what do I mean by address?

Not every biblical issue can be wrestled to the ground… and no one has “the answer” to the trinitarian paradox. But this is not the defeat of God. After all, he is the one who set up the Trinitarian revelation in this way. But to address the apparent paradox, all we have to do is meet the typical challenge offered by cultists, Muslims and Unitarians who aver that the doctrine of the Trinity is a logical incoherence — and to do this we need only to offer a single plausible model that demonstrates logical coherence. Therefore, we do not need the “full scoop” on the Trinity to defend God, and it is with that in view that I offer you this model.

Now that we’ve laid out the issues and have suggested a philosophical target, let us lay out a few of the trinitarian basics before we answer your questions specifically.

The Unitarian belief is that God is a personone person… but this is wrong.  God is not a person — he is three persons (or tri-personal). Do not misunderstand me: God is indeed one. He is one in substance — but not one in person… and he does this in a way that there is one God and not three gods… and that’s a good thing! Because the Bible says,

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4, NIV)

Yet that same Bible reveals that there are three persons who are God — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — but that they are distinct one from the other. That is the “formula” for the Trinity. Here is a mere sampling of supporting verses.

“For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5:18, NIV)

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;” (Philippians 2:6, NIV)

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.” (Colossians 2:8–10, NIV)

The verses above speak to the first requirement for the Trinity — that Jesus is deity. The verses below speak to the second requirement — that he is a person who is distinct from the Father and from the Spirit.

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Matthew 11:27, NIV)

“Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”” (Matthew 26:39, NIV)

Jesus describes himself and the Father as different persons, and he also addresses the Father which demonstrates that they are distinct persons. The verse below does even more.

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16–17, NIV)

This verse speaks of the Holy Spirit as a person who is distinct from the Father and the Son. But the following verse shows that he is God. (Who else could a person blaspheme against but God?)

“Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:32, NIV)

I won’t go on and on with citations because — if I’m reading you correctly — you do believe that the Bible testifies to the Trinity… you just can’t figure it all out! (… and neither can I!) But I needed to offer some citations for completeness’ sake — and to demonstrate that the elements necessary for the Trinity are in place: the deity of — and the distinction of — all three persons.

Now that we have that in place, I propose that we view the Trinity as two different trinities — and this will help us through the fog. So, in aspects that are necessary for deity, common to the Godhead and related to God’s own nature, let us understand this to be the ontological Trinity. But where God relates to his creation, let us understand this to be the economic Trinity.

The economic Trinity concerns the persons of the Godhead rather than the nature of the Godhead, yet each of these persons will have their own unique ontology, too. But while each person is unique as a person, they are all still the same single essence, and as such, they still share fully in the ontological Trinity. Here’s how that works.

God (the Godhead) is eternal. That is an ontological truth concerning God’s nature. So this is also true of the Trinity’s persons. Therefore, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all eternal. But they are not eternal independently; they are eternal because they share a single nature as deity. However, not every thing that is true of one person is true of all.

Look at Jesus for example. Jesus alone took on flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). This is a unique and ontological aspect of his person. But also, note this well: Jesus did not merely act like a human; he became a human… and the other persons of the Trinity never did. So here’s the big point: Although the Godhead shares many of their attributes as a single nature, they do not share those particular attributes that are designed to be discrete within a person.

For example, Jesus alone (and not the Father and not the Holy Spirit) had two natures: he was fully man and fully God… both at the same time! Now, it is true that enduring the cross was Jesus’ job in the plan of redemption, but his humanity cannot be reduced to a mere function of the Godhead… not even such a critical one. But Jesus’ humanity made that function possible, and without that unique ontological aspect of having two natures, redemption itself would not have been possible.

By way of comparison, the Father and the Holy Spirit are spirit-beings only; they have no human nature. Therefore, it is not possible for them to die on the cross, nor would it be reasonable to say that they “felt” anything as we understand feeling. So when the Romans drove the nails through Jesus’ hands, neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit felt the pain. These sufferings were designed for (and born by) Jesus alone, and they reside solely within the economic Trinity. As such, they do not bleed-over into the ontological Trinity. (Pun intended.)

However, Jesus was still a member of the ontological Trinity — even while suffering on the cross. So yes, he was also “in heaven” with the others… but let me state this most emphatically: Jesus’ ongoing deity did not mollify his suffering. He endured the crucifixion’s sufferings fully as a human being… but while in full fellowship in the Godhead… and while in simultaneous possession of everything common to the ontological Trinity.

The Trinity’s skeptics see this as incoherent. But, the trinitarian model is totally coherent if Jesus does indeed possess two different, full and simultaneous natures… a fact which they deny… but a fact which is pivotal for understanding Christianity. When it comes to the Trinity, one must reason beyond the simplicity of integers. It is true that the integer 1 cannot be the integer 3… this, by definition. But God is greater than number theory — this, too, by definition — and it is a fool who binds the “greatest possible being” with the smoking flax of anything real or imagined. But here is something real: the two trinities worked together to redeem humankind from sin — and here is how they did it.

Within the ontological Trinity there was omnipotence, omniscience, love... and a purpose from before the foundations of the world (1 Peter 1:20), and each person shared in these — not as three persons — but as one essence. Yet, it took a Father to send his Son (1 John 4:10), it took a Son to obey and die (Philippians 2:8), and it took a Spirit to convict of sin (John 16:8) to work the master plan. All those actions were performed by the members of the economic Trinity. So, although the ontological Trinity was in full agreement with redemption, it did not actuate every detail of it.

As this demonstrates, the persons are one in deity and in purpose, but they have distinct natures as persons. This shows that there is not a necessary connection between them in every aspect and at every moment — and seeing this “lack of fixedness” in a God who changes not (Malachi 3:6) should relieve some of the tension revealed in your question.

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