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Conceptions of God

In Christianity, God is the eternal being who created the universe and all there is. God is usually held to have the properties of holiness (separate from sin and incorruptible), justice (fair, right, and true in all his judgments), omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, omnipresence and immortality (eternal and everlasting). The Bible never speaks of God in an impersonal sense. Instead, it refers to him in personal terms—as one who is, who speaks, who sees, hears, acts, and loves. God is understood to be a personal God, with a will and personality. He is represented in Scripture as being primarily concerned with people.[1]

He is believed to be transcendent, meaning that he is outside space and outside time, and therefore eternal and unable to be changed by earthly forces or anything else within his creation.[2] Although all Christian groups believe that they worship the same God, some have differing beliefs about his nature.

A 2006 Harris Poll finds that most U.S. adults believe in God. Fifty-eight percent say they are "Absolutely Certain" there is a God. Fifteen percent are "somewhat certain," 11 percent think there is probably no God and 16 percent are not sure.[3]


The "Hospitality of Abraham" by Andrei Rublev: The three angels represent the three persons of God

The Trinitarian doctrine is considered by most Christians to be a core tenet of their faith. Since the 4th century, in both Eastern and Western Christianity, this doctrine has been stated as "three persons in one God," all three of whom, as distinct and co-eternal persons, are of one indivisible Divine essence, a simple being. The majority of Christians are Trinitarian and regard belief in the Trinity as a test of orthodoxy.[4]

"Father, Son and Holy Spirit"

Christians have always called upon their God with the name "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" in prayer, baptism, communion, demon exorcism, hymn-singing, preaching, confession, absolution and benediction.[4] Trinitarian Christians trace the orthodox formula of the Trinity—The Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost—to words used by the resurrected Jesus as recorded in Matthew 28:16-20 (the Great Commission).

Trinitarian doctrine

In Christianity, the doctrine of the Trinity states that God is one being who exists, simultaneously and eternally, as a mutual indwelling of three persons: the Father, the Son (incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth), and the Holy Spirit. Since earliest Christianity, one's salvation has been very closely related to the concept of a Triune God, although the trinitarian doctrine was not formalized until the Fourth Century.

Most Christians believe that God is spirit (John 4:24), an uncreated, omnipotent, and eternal being, the creator and sustainer of all things, who works the redemption of the world through his Son, Jesus Christ. With this background, belief in the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit is expressed as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity,[5] which describes the single Divine substance existing as three distinct and inseparable persons: the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ the eternal Word), and the Holy Spirit (1 John 5:7).

According to this doctrine, God is not divided in the sense that each Person of the Godhead is considered to be fully God (see Perichoresis). The distinction lies in their relations as affirmed in the Nicene Creed: the Father being unbegotten (see Ephesians 3:14 for instance), the Son begotten of the Father (John 3:16, John 14:16), and the Holy Spirit ("another Comforter") proceeding from the Son (John 15:26). "Begotten," in these formulae, refers to the idea that Jesus was uncreated and "eternally begotten" of the Father.

The term "Trinity"

Neither the Old Testament nor New Testament uses the term "trinity," but trinitarians believe the concept is implicit in various biblical passages. The doctrine of the Trinity is the result of continuous exploration by the church of the biblical data, argued in debate and treatises.[6] It was expressed in early writings from the beginning of the second century forward.[6] The First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD established a nearly universal Trinitarian dogma and expressly rejected any heresies. The most widely recognized Biblical foundations for the doctrine's formulation are in the Gospel of John. The Trinity concept is not to be confused with the idea of three separate deities, but the same god in different forms (a common comparison is water; it is always of the same chemical structure but can be water, ice or steam).


There are Christian sects that either reject the doctrine of the Trinity outright or teach variants of the doctrine]] which are considered heretical by mainstream Christians. nontrinitarian positions are held by some groups including Binitarianism (two deities/persons/aspects), Unitarianism (one deity/person/aspect), the Godhead (Latter Day Saints) (three separate beings) and Modalism (Oneness).

Some have described the Father, Son and Spirit as each a distinct, eternally existent being (tritheism), or as a different "manifestation" of a single being (modalism). Some have theorized that the relationship of Father and Son began at some point outside of normal "history" (Arianism) and others have believed that God became a Father when he uttered his creating Λογος ("logos" or "word"), who is both a principle of order and a living being to whom God bears the relationship as Father (some gnostics). Others found strong affinity with traditional pagan ideas of a savior or hero who is begotten by deity, an idea of the Father similar to Mithraism or the cult of the Roman emperor.

Christians of Reformed theology also conceive salvation to be one work of the triune God in which "the three divine persons act together as one, and manifest their own proper characteristics" with the agency of the Holy Spirit as an essential element."[7]

God as Father

In the New Testament, God the Father has a special role in his relationship with the person of the Son, where Jesus is believed to be his Son and his heir (Hebrews 1:2-5). According to the Nicene Creed, the Son (Jesus Christ) is "eternally begotten of the Father", indicating that their divine Father-Son relationship is not tied to an event within time or human history. See Christology. The Bible refers to Christ, called "The Word" as present at the beginning of God's creation (John 1:1), not a creation himself, but equal in the personhood of the Trinity.

In Eastern Orthodox theology, God the Father is the "arche" or "principium" (beginning), the "source" or "origin" of both the Son and the Holy Spirit (which gives intuitive emphasis to the threeness of persons); by comparison, Western theology explains the "origin" of all three hypostases or persons as being in the divine nature (which gives intuitive emphasis to the oneness of God's being). The Cappadocian Fathers used this Eastern Orthodox monarchian understanding to explain why trinitarianism is not tritheism: "God is one because the Father is one," said Basil the Great in the fourth century.

In Christianity, God is called "Father" in a previously unheard-of sense, besides being the creator and nurturer of creation, and the provider for his children, his people. The Father is said to have an eternal relation to his only Son, Jesus; which implies an exclusive and intimate familiarity that is of their very nature: "No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." (Matthew 11:27). In Christian theology, this is the revelation of a sense in which Fatherhood is inherent to God's nature, an eternal relationship.

To Christians, God the Father's relationship with humanity is as a father to children. Thus, humans in general are sometimes called children of God. To Christians, God the Father's relationship with humanity is that of Creator and created beings, and in that respect he is the father of all. The New Testament says, in this sense, that the very idea of family, wherever it appears, derives its name from God the Father (Ephesians 3:15), and thus God himself is the model of the family.

However, there is a deeper sense in which Christians believe that they are made participants in the eternal relationship of Father and Son, through Jesus Christ. Christians call themselves adopted children of God.[8]

God as Son

According to the Bible, the second Person of the Trinity, because of his eternal relation to the first Person (God as Father), is the Son of God. He is considered coequal with the Father and Holy Spirit. He is all God and all human: the Son of God as to his divine nature, while as to his human nature he is from the lineage of David (Romans 1:3,4. Compare Galatians 4:4; John 1:1-14; John 5:18-25; John 10:30-38. The core of Jesus' self-interpretation was his "filial consciousness," his relationship to God as child to parent in some unique sense[1] (see Filioque controversy). His mission on earth proved to be that of enabling people to know God as their Father, which Christians believe is the essence of eternal life (John 17:3).

God as Holy Spirit

In mainstream Christianity, the Holy Spirit is one of the three divine persons of the Holy Trinity who make up the single substance of God; that is, the Spirit is considered to act in concert with and share an essential nature with God the Father and God the Son (Jesus). The Christian theology of the Holy Spirit, or pneumatology, was the last piece of Trinitarian theology to be fully explored and developed. For this reason, there is greater theological diversity among Christian understandings of the Spirit than there is among understandings of the Son (Christology) and understandings of the Father. Within Trinitarian theology, the Holy Spirit is usually referred to as the "Third Person" of the Triune God - with the Father being the First Person and the Son the Second Person.

Christians believe that the Holy Spirit leads people to faith in Jesus and gives them the ability to live a Christian lifestyle. The Holy Spirit dwells inside every Christian, each one's body being His temple (1 Corinthians 3:16). Jesus described the Holy Spirit (John 14:26) as paracletus in Latin, derived from Greek. The word is variously translated as Comforter, Counselor, Teacher, Advocate,[9] guiding people in the way of the truth. The Holy Spirit's action in one's life is believed to produce positive results, known as the Fruit of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit enables Christians, who still experience the effects of sin, to do things they never could do on their own. These spiritual gifts are not innate abilities "unlocked" by the Holy Spirit, but entirely new abilities, such as the ability to cast out demons or simply bold speech. Through the influence of the Holy Spirit a person sees more clearly the world around him or her and can use his or her mind and body in ways that exceed his or her previous capacity. A list of gifts that may be bestowed include the charismatic gifts of prophecy, tongues, healing, and knowledge. Christians holding a view known as cessationism believe these gifts were given only in New Testament times. Christians almost universally agree that certain "spiritual gifts" are still in effect today, including the gifts of ministry, teaching, giving, leadership, and mercy (see e.g., Romans 12:6-8). The experience of the Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to as being anointed.

After His resurrection, Christ told His disciples that they would be "baptized with the Holy Spirit" and would receive power from this event (Acts 1:4-8), a promise that was fulfilled in the events recounted in the second chapter of Acts. On the first Pentecost, Jesus' disciples were gathered in Jerusalem when a mighty wind was heard and tongues of fire appeared over their heads. A multilingual crowd heard the disciples speaking, and each of them heard them speaking in his or her native language.


Some Christian traditions reject the doctrine of the Trinity. In the early centuries of Christian history Arians, Ebionites, Gnostics, Marcionites, and others held nontrinitarian beliefs. These views were rejected by many bishops such as Irenaeus and subsequently by the Ecumenical Councils. The Nicene Creed raised the issue of the relationship between Jesus' divine and human natures. Monophysitism ("one nature") and monothelitism ("one will") were heretical attempts to explain this relationship. During more than a thousand years of Trinitarian orthodoxy, formal nontrinitarianism, i.e., a doctrine held by a church, group, or movement, was rare, but it did appear.

The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s also brought tradition into question. At first, nontrinitarians were executed (such as Servetus), or forced to keep their beliefs secret (such as Isaac Newton). The eventual establishment of religious freedom, however, allowed nontrinitarians to more easily preach their beliefs, and the 19th century saw the establishment of several nontrinitarian groups in North America and elsewhere. These include Christadelphians, Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Unitarians. Twentieth-century nontrinitarian movements include Iglesia ni Cristo, Oneness Pentecostals, and the Unification Church. Nontrinitarian groups differ from one another in their views of Jesus Christ, depicting him variously as a divine being second only to God the Father, Yahweh of the Old Testament in human form, God (but not eternally God), prophet, or simply a holy man.

During the Reformation (though most Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants accepted the value of many of the Councils) some groups rejected these councils as spiritually tainted.[10] Clemens Ziegler[1], Casper Schwenckfeld, and Melchior Hoffman, advanced the view that Christ was only divine and not human. Michael Servetus denied that the traditional doctrine of the Trinity was necessary to defend the divinity of Christ. He claimed that Jesus was God Himself in the flesh. [11]

Latter-day Saints accept the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but deny that they are the same being. Rather, they believe them to be separate beings united perfectly in will and purpose.[12] They believe that the Father, like the Son, has a glorified physical body. (see Godhead)

Ecclesiastical Swedenborgians, such as those in the New Jerusalem Church or Swedenborgian Church of North America take a somewhat different approach to nontrinitarianism. Emanuel Swedenborg spoke sharply against the concept of the Trinity in most of his works. Members of the New Jerusalem movement view Jesus Christ alone as the one God, of whom the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are aspects (corresponding roughly to Wisdom, Love, and Earthly Activity). This is somewhat akin to modalist theology.

Present day groups who do not consider Jesus to be God include: Unitarians,[13] descendants of Reformation era Socinians, Christadelphians,[14] and Jehovah's Witnesses.[15]

Ambivalence to Trinitarian doctrine

Some Protestant Christians, particularly restorationists, are ambivalent about the doctrine of the Trinity. While not specifically rejecting Trinitarianism or presenting an alternative doctrine of the God's relationship with humanity, they are neither dogmatic about the Trinity nor hold it as a test of true Christian faith. Some, like the Society of Friends (Quakers) and Christian Unitarians, may reject all doctrinal or creedal tests of true faith. Others, like the restorationist Churches of Christ, in keeping with a distinctive understanding of "Scripture alone," say that since the doctrine of the Trinity is not clearly articulated in the Bible, it cannot be required for salvation. Still others may look to church tradition and say that there has always been a Christian tradition that faithfully followed Jesus without such a doctrine. They point out that the Trinitarian doctrine, which they see as being steeped in Greek philosophical distinctions, was not clearly articulated for some centuries after Christ.

Nontrinitarians commonly refer to the following points in objection to Trinitarian teaching.

  • That it does not follow the strict monotheism found in Judaism and the Old Testament, of which Jesus claimed to have fulfilled.
  • That it is an invention of early Christian church fathers, such as Tertullian.
  • That it is paradoxical and therefore not in line with reason.
  • That it reflects the influence of pagan religions, some of which have divine triads of their own.
  • That the doctrine contradicts the Holy Scriptures, such as when Jesus states that the Father is greater than he is, or the Pauline theology: "Yet to us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we unto him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we through him."[16]
  • That the doctrine relies almost entirely on non-Biblical terminology. Some notable examples include: Trinity, Three-in-one, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, Person in relation to anyone other than Jesus Christ being the image of God's person (hypostasis).
  • That the scriptural support for the doctrine is implicit at best. For example, the New Testament refers to the Father and the Son together much more often than to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the word "Trinity" doesn't appear in the Bible.

Referring to nontrinitarians objections, trinitarians, on the other hand, say that they are, indeed, monotheists, because they believe in just one God, although He exists as three persons[17][18]; and that, although the word "Trinity" is not in the Bible, the concept has its basis in an understanding of scriptural teaching, and supported by both the Old and the New Testaments of the Bible.[19]


A depiction of Jesus and Mary, the Theotokos of Vladimir (12th century)

Christology was a fundamental concern from the First Council of Nicaea (325) until the Third Council of Constantinople (680). In this time period, the Christological views of various groups within the broader Christian community led to accusations of heresy, and, infrequently, subsequent religious persecution. In some cases, a sect's unique Christology is its chief distinctive feature, in these cases it is common for the sect to be known by the name given to its Christology.

Christians believe that, as the messiah, Jesus was anointed as ruler and savior of humanity, and hold that Jesus' coming was the fulfillment of messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. The Christian concept of the Messiah differs significantly from the rabbinical concept.[20] The core Christian belief is that, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, sinful humans can be reconciled to God and thereby are offered salvation and the promise of eternal life.

While there have been theological disputes over the nature of Jesus, Christians believe that Jesus is God incarnate and "true God and true man" (or both fully divine and fully human). Jesus, having become fully human in all respects, suffered the pains and temptations of a mortal man, yet he did not sin. As fully God, he defeated death and rose to life again. According to the Bible, "God raised him from the dead,"[21] he ascended to heaven, to the "right hand of God,"[22] and he will return again[23] to fulfill the rest of Messianic prophecy such as the Resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment and establishment of the physical Kingdom of God.

According to the Gospels, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born from the Virgin Mary. Little of Jesus' childhood is recorded there in comparison to his adulthood, especially the week before his death. The Biblical accounts of Jesus' ministry include: his baptism, miracles, preaching, teaching, and healing.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Stagg, Frank. New Testament Theology, Nashville: Broadman, 1962. ISBN 085416137
  2. Machen, J. Gresham. God Transcendent. Banner of Truth publishers, 1998. ISBN 0851513557
  3. The Harris Poll® #80, October 31, 2006. Online:
  4. 4.0 4.1 Vickers, Jason E. Invocation and Assent: The Making and the Remaking of Trinitarian Theology. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008. ISBN 0802862691
  5. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines pp. 87-90; T. Desmond Alexander, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology pp. 514-515; Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology p. 61.
  6. 6.0 6.1 McGrath, Alister E. Understanding the Trinity. Zondervan, 1990. ISBN 0310296811
  7. For an example from Reformed theology, see: John Hendryx, The Work of the Trinity in Monergism; for the Catholic view see: Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 50) part 1, section 2, Chapter Two.
  8. But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts crying out, "Abba, Father!" Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. (Galatians 4:4-7)
  9. Spurgeon, Charles H. "The Comforter," 1855. Online: Accessed 29 April 2009
  10. MacCulloch, Reformation pp. 185, 187
  11. Servetus, Michael. Restoration of Christianity. Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007.
  12. Hinckley, Gordon (March, 1998). "First Presidency Message: The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost". Ensign. Retrieved September 8 2006. 
  13. On Unitarians, see:, Unitarian Views of Jesus; on connection with Socinianism, see:, Socinianism: Unitarianism in 16th-17th century Poland and Its Influence (Note that the icon at the top of the page expresses Trinitarian theology with a symbolic hand gesture); on this matter they parallel the ancient Ebionites, see: J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines pp. 139
  14. One God or a Trinity?, James and Deb Flint (Printland: Hyderabad). Assessed: 08–15–2007. Available online
  15. Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, What Does the Bible Say About God and Jesus?
  16. Jewish Encyclopedia
  17. Grudem, Wayne A. 1994. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. Page 226.
  18. See discussion in  "Person". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  19. See Trinity#Trinity in Scripture for a list of Bible passages on the subject.
  20., The Messiah
  21. Acts 2:24, Romans 10:9, 1 Cor 15:15, Acts 2:31-32, 3:15, 3:26, 4:10, 5:30, 10:40-41, 13:30, 13:34, 13:37, 17:30-31, 1 Cor 6:14, 2 Cor 4:14, Gal 1:1, Eph 1:20, Col 2:12, 1 Thess 1:10, Heb 13:20, 1 Pet 1:3, 1:21
  22. Mark 16:19, Luke 22:69, Acts 2:33, 5:31, 7:55-56, Romans 8:34, Eph 1:20, Col 3:1, Hebrews 1:3, 1:13, 10:12, 12:2, 1 Peter 3:22
  23. Acts 1:9-11

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