The Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, and the Communicatio Idiomatum

by Matt Slick

The Bible says that there is only one God in all existence for all time (Isaiah 43:10; 44:6, 8; 45:5, etc.). But, what exactly is the nature of God?  Is He a Trinity or not?  The answer to this question has been debated for hundreds of years especially since the non-Christian cults (Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormons, Christadelphians, etc.,) have arisen.  In spite of their attacks on the Trinity, and others in the past, the Christian church has discovered what the Bible says about God and the person of Jesus.  Therefore, following is a presentation of three very important Christian doctrines that, in total, answers most every objection raised by the anti-orthodox false teachers that have arisen in these last days.  When I say "most every objection," I actually mean "most every objection" because most of them fall into only a few categories; and they are answered with the same basic Christian teachings.

Unfortunately, many in the cults, because they have been taught the Trinity is false, will not accept standard answers to their objections.  Instead, many of them continue  to raise the same questions, often ignoring answers, and staying willingly ignorant of Christian doctrines that affect the discussion of the Trinity and person of Jesus.  This paper, then, is an attempt to list three important biblical teachings and then apply them to the different objections raised by the critics.  In this way, Christians and cultists alike might be better-informed on the Biblical positions held by the historic Christian Church since its inception.

The Trinity

The Trinity is the teaching that there is only one God who exists as three simultaneous and eternal persons:  the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  By "person" is meant the characteristics of self-awareness, speech, having a will, emotions, etc. Therefore, there are three persons.  The Father is not the same person as the Son; the Son is not the same person as the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit is not the same person as Father--as each of them have a will and speak to each other and to people.  They are not three separate gods and are not three separate beings.  They are three distinct persons; yet, they are all the one God.  They are in absolute perfect harmony--consisting of one substance.  They are coeternal, coequal, and co-powerful.  If any one of the three were removed, there would be no God.

The Hypostatic Union

The Hypostatic Union is the teaching that the Word of God became flesh, and we call Him Jesus.  Therefore, Jesus is God in human flesh.  He is not half God and half man.  He is fully divine and fully man.  That is, Jesus has two distinct natures: divine and human.  As the Scripture says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . 14 and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us . . . " (John 1:1, 14). This means that the divine word became flesh in the single person of Jesus, who is thus both human and divine in nature.  The divine nature was not changed.  It was not altered in this union.  Rather, the divine holy nature of the Word remains as it is.

Furthermore, Jesus is not merely a man who "had God within Him," nor is he a man who "manifested the God principle." He is the second person of the Trinity. "The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word." (Heb. 1:3, NIV). Jesus' two natures are not "mixed together," nor are they combined into a new God-man nature.  They are separate yet act as a unit in the one person of Jesus.  This is called the Hypostatic Union.

Also, in the incarnation, Jesus was made for a while lower than the angels (Heb. 2:9) and under the law (Gal. 4:4).  This means that Jesus cooperated with the limitations of being a man (Phil. 2:5-8).  In other words, He really was a man and as a man exhibited the proper restrictions of His humanity such as growing taller, eating, growing in wisdom, etc., which would be expected of a real human being.

The Communicatio Idiomatum

The communicatio idiomatum (Latin for "communication of properties") is the teaching that the attributes of both the divine and human natures are ascribed to the one person of Jesus.  This means that the person of Jesus could rightfully claim for Himself the attributes of both the divine and the human natures.  Therefore, He could say He had glory with the Father before the world was made (John 17:5).  He could claim that He descended from heaven (John 3:13); and He could also claim omnipresence (Matt. 28:20) even though Jesus, the man, began His existence on earth when He was conceived in Mary's womb.

This is vitally important when we look at the atonement.  Jesus' sacrifice was divine, as well as human, in nature.  Jesus died.  But, we know that God cannot die.  So, if the divine nature did not die, how can it be said that Jesus' sacrifice was divine in nature?  The answer is that the attributes of divinity, as well as humanity, were ascribed to the person Jesus.  Therefore, since the person of Jesus died, His death was of infinite value because the properties of divinity were ascribed to the person in His death.

Objections Answered

Following is an outline of basic objections raised by critics of the Trinity and deity of Christ.  Note there are many questions that are answered the same way.  The answers will frequently refer to the three doctrines listed above.

 

  1. The word Trinity is not found in the Bible.
    1. This has no bearing on whether or not the Bible teaches the doctrine.  The word "monotheism" is not in the Bible, yet it is clearly taught in scripture.  Is monotheism not true because the word isn't used in the Bible?
  2. There is no verse in the Bible that teaches the Trinity
    1. First of all, the doctrine of the Trinity is systematically arrived at. In other words, you look at the whole of scripture to find it.  We find various verses that teach that the Father is called God (Phil. 1:2), the Son is called God (John 1:1, 14), and the Holy Spirit is called God (Acts 5:3-4 ).  We see that each was involved in Christ's resurrection (Father, 1 Thess. 1:10; Son, John 2:19-21; Holy Spirit, Rom. 8:11 ).  We see that each is all knowing (Father, 1 John 3:20; Son, John 16:30; 21:17; Holy Spirit, 1 Cor. 2:10-11), etc. Therefore, the Trinity is found in the whole of scripture-- not just one part of it.
    2. Second, there are verses that suggest the Trinity since they mention all three together.  So, saying that there is no single verse that teaches the trinity isn't necessarily true.
      1. Matt. 3:16-17, "And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him, 17and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."
      2. Matt. 28:19, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit . . ." Note that there is one name and three persons.
      3. 2 Cor. 13:14, "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all."
  3. The Trinity is three separate Gods
    1. This objection demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Trinity doctrine which is, by definition, monotheistic.  Therefore, when this objection is raised, the critic is simply demonstrating what he/she does not not understand.
  4. Three gods cannot be one God
    1. This objection reveals a lack of understanding of the Trinity.  First of all, the Trinity is not three gods.  Therefore, the complaint is invalid since it is not based upon what the Trinity really is.  The Trinity is one God in three persons.
  5. Three persons cannot be one person.
    1. The Doctrine of the Trinity does not state that God is one person.  Therefore, the complaint is invalid since it does not accurately reflect what the Trinity is.  The Trinity is one God in three persons.
  6. The Trinity is illogical
    1. There is no logical reason why the Trinity cannot be a possibility.  An analogy would be time which is past, present, and future.  Each part of time is not the other, yet the nature of each is "time."  If time can be three parts, why cannot God not also exist that way?
    2. It is good to ask the critic what logical premise exists that prohibits the existence of God as three persons.  If they state that it just can't happen, then all they are offering is their opinion without fact or reason.
  7. The Trinity is a pagan idea.
    1. Saying that it is a pagan idea does not make it so.  Many of the critics will claim that the Trinity was copied from paganism and will cite other religions with triads.  A triad is three separate gods.  The Trinity is a one God.  They are not the same.  Therefore, the assertion is unfounded.
    2. Also, even though there were other cultures with triadic deities does not mean that Christianity borrowed from the idea and changed it.  The Trinity is found in the Old Testament.  There are many verses in the OT that contain plural references to the one God:  1) Gen. 1:1,26; Job 33:4; 2) Gen. 17:1; 18:1; Ex. 6:2-3; 24:9-11; 33:20; Num. 12:6-8; Psalm 104:30;  3) Gen. 19:24 with Amos 4:10-11; Is.48:16
  8. Jesus cannot be God because He did not know all things, slept, grew in wisdom, said the Father is greater than I, etc.
    1. This type of statement is perhaps the most commonly raised attack.  Unfortunately, it fails to take into consideration the Hypostatic Union which states that Jesus had two natures: divine and human.  As a man, Jesus cooperated with the limitations of His humanity, was made lower than the angels (Heb. 2:9), talked about position, and was under the Law (Gal. 4:4), signifying Him being under legal obligations.  Therefore, Jesus would sleep, grow in wisdom, and say the Father was greater than He.  But, these do not negate that Jesus was divine since they reference His humanity and not His divinity. 
      There are other verses which reflect His divinity, such as when He said, "Before Abraham was, I AM." (John 8:58 with Exodus 3:14).  He was called God by God in Heb. 1:8, "But of the Son He says,'Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever,'" and John 1:1, 14 says that He is " . . . the Word was God . . . and became flesh . . . " This means that Jesus is both divine and human; and as a man, he would grow, sleep, and learn.  It means that Jesus had a human nature--not that he had no divine nature.
  9. Jesus cannot be God because that would mean that God changed.
    1. The doctrine of the Hypostatic Union teaches that the divine nature of the Word did not change as it became united, in the one person of Christ, with the human nature.  The Hypostatic Union maintains there are two distinct natures: divine and human.  By definition, God cannot change.  Yet, the Bible says that " . . . the Word was God . . . and the Word became flesh," (John 1:1, 14).  By definition, nature of divinity does not change.  Therefore, the divine nature did not change when it became united with the human in the person of Jesus.  Again, the Hypostatic Union states that in the one person of Jesus, there are two distinct natures: divine and human.  Therefore, the divine nature did not change.
    2. An illustration of this concept would be the biblical doctrine of marriage where the male and female become one flesh (Gen. 2:24).  Though the man and woman are distinct, the Bible says they are one flesh.  Were the man and woman changed in nature when they became married?  Did they stop being man and woman?  Not at all.  Likewise, the divine nature did not change when it was united with the human in the one person
  10. Jesus cannot be God because this would mean that God died, and God can't die.
    1. Jesus' sacrifice was divine as well as human in nature.  Jesus died.  But, we know that God cannot die.  So, if the divine nature did not die, how can it be said that Jesus' sacrifice was divine in nature?  The answer is that the attributes of divinity as well as humanity were ascribed to the person Jesus.  Therefore, since the person of Jesus died, His death was of infinite value because the properties of divinity were ascribed to the person in His death.  This is called the Communicatio Idiomatum

 

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  1. Achtemeier, Paul J., Th.D., Harpers Bible Dictionary, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.) 1985.

 

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