The ELCA Confession of Faith, subtitled “What we believe in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” has as its first article, “This church confesses the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” ELCA Lutherans share this belief in the Holy Trinity with all of mainstream Christianity.
The most important and significant statement of the Trinity in the Bible is in what is called the Prologue to the Gospel of John, John, 1:1-18. Many feel that this was a hymn of the ancient church and was an early creed.
The first few verses of the Prologue read as follows, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:1-3a, NRSV)
The Word, which in Greek is logos, had significance to both gentile Greeks and to Jews. To the Greeks, logo had come to mean “the rational principle that pervaded and constituted and ordered the universe.” And to the Greek speaking Jews, logos was used to refer to the creative Word of God through which he had created the universe. (Kee and Young, Understanding the New Testament. Prentice Hall, NJ, 1957, pp. 386-387.)
The Lutheran Study Bible says this about the Gospel of John: “The central claim of this Gospel [John] is that, in Jesus, the Word that, in the beginning was with God and was God, became human.… For the Gospel of John, Jesus is not the suffering Messiah, but the very presence of the divine ‘I AM.’”
Substitute the name “Jesus Christ” for “the Word,” and Read the Prologue again. “In the beginning was Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was with God, and Jesus Christ was God. Jesus Christ was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Jesus Christ, and without Jesus Christ, not one thing came into being.” (John 1:1-3a, NRSV, paraphrased.)
If Jesus Christ is the Word of God and was with God and was God from the beginning, what about the Holy Spirit?
The first words of the Prologue echo the first words of Genesis. Let’s look back at Genesis 1:1-3. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” (Genesis 1-3, RSV)
In Genesis, we have God (the Father) creating the Heavens and the Earth, we have the Spirit of God moving over the formless void, and we have God speaking the Word (God the Son, or Jesus Christ.
Some of the confusion about the trinity comes from the translation of the Latin word, persona, which is often translated “persons.” People say, “How can one God have three persons?”
This actually is a mistranslation of persona. On pages 70-73 in his 1978 unpublished book, When the Doorbell Rings,” Henry W. Reenstjerna, Jr., wrote, “What does it mean to worship a ‘God in three persons?’…It does not mean “God in three people.” The word for “person’ in Latin is “persona,” which means “mask.” [or role]….God is not 1+1+1=3, but 1x1x1=. So, when we sing of a “God in Three Persons,” we sing of a God who wears three different masks. He is onee God, but he comes to us playing there different roles.” Those roles are creator, redeemer, and inspirer.’
I myself came to understand how God could be three persona when my son was a student in the school where I taught. I was his father, his teacher, and, in addition, I was his Cubmaster. In each role, I related to him in different ways. For instance, once, when he was in a fight over a ball on the playground, I had to put aside being his father and take him to the principal as a teacher. When I had an issue about his education I wanted to talk about, I would go to the principal and ask him, Could I have a few minutes off to go to my son’s school and talk with the principal?” At that time, I was putting aside being a teacher and acting as a parent.
In closing, I again will quote Reenstjerna. “Of all the things there are to know of God, of all that vast mystery of uncharted spiritual seas about which I shall never know fully in this life and about which I can only guess—at least I am able to say that I know this much about God. I know him as He deals with me in these three ways, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
For further study:
1. There is only one true God (Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 43:10; John 17:3; Galatians 3:20).
2. The Father is called or referred to as God (Psalm 89:26; Ephesians 4:6; Colossians 1:2–3; 2 Peter 1:17).
3. The Son (Jesus Christ) is called or referred to as God (John 1:1; Philippians 2:6; Colossians 2:9; Titus 2:13).
4. The Holy Spirit is called or referred to (or granted the status) as God (Genesis 1:2; John 14:26; Acts 13:2, 4; Romans 8:11).
5. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons and can be distinguished from one another (the Father is not the Son; the Father is not the Holy Spirit; and the Son is not the Holy Spirit) (Matthew 28:19; Luke 3:22; John 15:26; 16:13–15; 2 Corinthians 13:14).
6. The three persons (Father or God; and Son or Christ or Lord; and Holy Spirit or Spirit) are frequently listed together in a triadic pattern of unity and equality (Romans 15:16, 30; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 2 Corinthians 1:21–22; Galatians 4:6).
Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared in the SCRIBE, the newsletter of Elim Lutheran Church, Volume 63, Number 5, May 2013.