Clarifying the Trinity: Attributes of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
hypostasis (n.) - (1) underlying state or substance, (2) an element of the Christian trinity
A Stumbling Block
Christianity is a monotheistic religion. A monotheistic religion is one in which the existence, or worship, of only a single god is taught. This contrasts to a polytheistic religion which advocates the existence, or worship, of two or more gods.
Among the details of standard Christian doctrine is the notion that God is a three-fold, single divine entity called the Trinity. The hypostases of the Trinity are God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The notion that one can be three and three can likewise be one is a stumbling block for many and can be confusing even for seasoned Christians.
There has been much written on the subject, and this article does not intend to improve upon any of it, but simply to attempt to make the matter somewhat more familiar with more relatable terms.
In order to truly understand the Trinity, it is important to understand that even simple things can possess multiple forms. The most elementary example is that of the chemical compound. When H (hydrogen) and 02 (oxygen) come together they form a bond which makes H20, more commonly known as water. Depending on its temperature, H20 can take multiple forms. When it is cold it forms solid ice. When it is warm it forms liquid water. When it is hot it forms gaseous steam. Each form is definitively not another, but at no time does it cease to be the chemical compound H20. It is always the same, though it may be different.
Sure, that may be true with water, but what about a more personable entity? Well, let’s consider you!
- Do you have a family?
- Do you have a job?
- Do you have friends?
As anyone surely can recognize, we as humans don’t interact with our nearest and dearest in the same manner we interact with our boss, or our cousin, or our pal. Though much of our personality may remain the same, we have different relationships with different people. Our role changes with those relationships. Sometimes we are a husband, other times an employee. Sometimes we are a friend, sometimes we are father.
In fact, let us further consider the role of parent. A good parent does not treat his or her child the same way all the time. Sure, there is the idea that we’ll always treat our kids with love and fairness, but our approach is sometimes different.
A mother whose daughter is being teased comforts her and acts compassionately. That same mother may later, when her daughter attempts to make new friends, decide to take a hands-off approach, watching from afar so as not to stunt her social growth. As the child grows and the relationship matures, the mother will need to present herself in even newer ways.
Similarly, God has roles for handling us in different ways at different times.
A little more Chemistry...
God the Father is the Creator. In that way he is a lot like liquid water. Without water, growth stops. He watches over us and nourishes us. Endlessly, he cleanses our souls. He can saturate our souls with goodness.
God the Son, whom we identify as Jesus, is more like solid ice. I don’t mean that to say He is cold, but to say that He is fixed. He came to earth in solid, human form and remained here for a fixed amount of time. Like ice, He was present in a single location and His impact could be felt in the nearby vicinity. As ice affects the temperature of the air around it, Jesus affected the people around Him with His goodness and healings.
God the Spirit, which we call the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost, remains the most difficult to comprehend. The Holy Spirit is most like gaseous steam. The spirit is a moving, amorphous extension of God. Like steam, it can be concentrated heavily (such as in times of revival) or lightly.
An example from history
To understand the manner by which these hypostases can coexist within One, let us take up another example. Again, I will try to use relatable terms. Recognizing that he is not sinless, and certainly not God, consider American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson was the quintessential Renaissance man--an agrarian, politician, lawyer, etc. He had characteristics and traits which were special and unique to him. They made the man. Specifically his mind had a certain disposition to a particular philosophy and it guided his affairs. From that mind, from Jefferson himself, came his most famous achievement. Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence. The document changed the course of American--and even world--history. It altered the understood agreement, a covenant of sorts, and impacted life from that point forward. In time, Jefferson died. Today the inspiration drawn from his words continue to carry weight. They inspire and motivate. You could say his spirit lives on.
Jefferson’s life serves as a microcosmic example of the manner by which God can be three things without ceasing to be one. To slightly blur the historical line in the name of simplicity, it is within Jefferson that the Declaration of Independence began. It reflects his beliefs and in many ways his very character. One would likely very much understand what was meant if it were said that the Declaration is Jefferson. The writing of that document clearly exemplifies how out of one thing another can come. It can be its own entity and still possess all of the characteristics of that from which it was drawn. And the effects of that document can still be felt today. The inspiration he provides with those words illustrates the way that non-physical qualities of that root-being (Jefferson, himself) can provide continued renewal of said being’s most identifiable traits. In that way also, Jefferson is the ongoing inspiration he provides. And so, he is three things: he is the man, he is the document, and he is the inspiration.
The metaphor is imperfect in many ways--Jefferson himself is incomparable to God in love, glory, and sinless less. His document and its impact likewise are a long shot from being on par with the life of Jesus, though he is “the Word.” Lastly, the Holy Spirit is now simply residual inspiration, but is the living spirit active in the world. Nonetheless, it has some merit in exemplifying the way aspects of a being can be drawn out of the original without compromising, damaging, or taking away from it. Furthermore, the metaphor gains strength upon consideration of this point: Jefferson is the imperfect author of a significant political document, while God is the blameless author of life!
The Father is the overarching, good, abundant in love author of all Creation. Out of Him come all good things.
The Son is the physical embodiment of love who walked the earth as both example and sacrifice, and now sits with the Father in heaven. This physical embodiment, whose physical death we know to be the landmark event of all history, we know to be Jesus. The Son is subordinate to the Father.
The Holy Spirit is a non-physical form which serves to open up the spiritual and the supernatural to dedicated, engaged human lovers of God. The Spirit is subordinate to the Son and to the Father.
Subordination within the Trinity seems to complicate the oneness of God, but it is a logical subordination. Spirit yields to physical. In our own lives we can acknowledge that our spirits get no attention if not so prescribed by our physical minds and bodies. Likewise, our physical gets no authority over Creation, for which the Father is responsible. And naturally, the spiritual cannot control Creation is it, in a sense, requires permission by the physical.
God, who is unrealizable to us in his full glory due to our sinfulness and limited physicality, has provided opportunities to access Him through the physical, with Jesus, and the spiritual, through the Holy Ghost. He has not broken Himself into pieces and He remains but one entity of love. He has merely presented the different aspects of Himself--the Creator Nurturer, the Sacrifice Example, and the Everpresent Spirit. None are unique from Him and none are separate.
Want to get technical?
- What does the Bible teach about the Trinity?
What does the Bible teach about the Trinity? Is the doctrine of the Trinity found in the Bible? How is the trinity not tritheism?