What Is the Holy Trinity? - Definition & Overview

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Ever wanted to unravel the ancient spiritual mysteries of a mystic religion? Then come explore this lesson on the Holy Trinity, where you'll learn more about the intricacies of this fundamental Christian doctrine.

3-in-1: Holy Trinity Defined

Have you ever owned a Swiss Army knife? If so, then you know that, instead of having only a single blade like most knives, these handy devices contain a number of different blades and tools. But whether you're using it to cut twine, to remove small branches, or to open a wine bottle, it's still a single Swiss Army knife. Many Christians look at God in a similar way, basing their perceptions on the idea of the Holy Trinity - the doctrine stating that three distinct persons coexist as a single divine being (God).

Explaining the Holy Trinity

The Nicene Creed

So, who are these 'persons' in the Holy Trinity? To get better acquainted with them, we can turn to the Nicene Creed. Developed by Christian leaders at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, the Nicene Creed is a statement of faith outlining fundamental Christian beliefs and is the best place to start when trying to understand how the Holy Trinity works. Let's take a look at some excerpts from the Creed that should shed some light on the matter:

'I believe in one God, the Father almighty…I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages…begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father…I believe in the Holy Spirit…who proceeds from the Father and the Son…'

Like Judaism or Islam, Christianity adheres to the concept of monotheism, or a belief system that acknowledges a single divine entity or presence responsible for governing the universe. Obviously, the belief in one God is first and foremost in the Creed, but how that one being is actually three distinct persons (God, the Father; God, the Son; God, the Holy Spirit) doesn't seem to fit that belief. However, if we pay a little closer attention to the wording we should be able to make some sense of what's going on.

Breaking Down the Text

Reading the Bible or other religious texts can often lead to headaches from trying to figure out what words mean or what other ideas have been lost in translation, and dealing with the Nicene Creed is no different. For instance, all of our experiences would say that 'God, the Father' and the 'Son of God' are two completely separate people - after all, you and your dad don't share the same body. However, the Creed points out that Jesus was 'begotten, not made' and 'born of the Father,' meaning he is actually only part of the Father that has developed its own identity. Think about how two bacteria that split from the same cell have the same DNA - they might be identifiably distinct from one another, but they share a single essence (set of genetic material). This is what the Creed means by 'consubstantial' - the persons of the Trinity share one being ('substance') although they're identifiably distinct.

Images like the Scutum Fidei (Lat. Shield of Faith - above) have been used for centuries to illustrate the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
Diagram of the Scutum Fidei

Now, let's continue with this analogy of unicellular organisms. Say one bacterium needs to move in order to interact with others; sometimes, they're able to move around using flagella that extend from the main cell body. Similarly, the Creed says that the Holy Spirit 'proceeds from the Father and the Son,' meaning this person is really just an extension - an appendage, if you will - of the others.

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