The Trinity is a mystery. Yet the presence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is basic to Scriptures.
Understanding the God in three persons becomes a lot easier with a functional view. The conventional approach is an ontological perspective that asks: Who is God and who are the three persons? Asking about the “is-ness” of God, his ousia, is a very Greek way of asking and answering a question.
Our Western heritage is in the Latin. The Eastern churches spoke and wrote in Greek. In the fourth century, the great church councils were held near Byzantium, the new capital of the Eastern part of the Roman empire. This means our classical Christian creeds were first written in Greek. We inherited the Latin translation.
This historical note explains why we have special difficulty understanding the word person as it applies to the trinity. The original Greek word meant mask. In Greek drama, the actors said their lines through a mask that gave a visual definition of the character they were portraying. One actor might play two or three different roles. The church fathers explained that the one true God acts through three different masks. In expressing himself through the first mask he is the Father. Expressing himself through the second mask, God is the Son. Wearing the third mask, he is the Spirit. This seems easier to understand.
However, in the Latin translation, the word for mask is persona. Thus we have God in three persons. How can three persons together be the same person? We might think we know what a person is, but it helps to remember the original meaning as mask. So the true God relates to us by acting in three different roles. Martin Luther spelled those out.
Through the Father-mask the one true God creates, provides for, and defends us. Working through the second mask, the God in heaven took on human form as Jesus, came to earth and showed us how God loves and deeply cares about us. He took on our sins to redeem us through his death and resurrection. Jesus is now advocating to the Father to accept an individual believer because “he or she trusts what I did for them 2,000 years ago.” Jesus is ascended and won’t come back until the end times.
What does God do through the third mask as the Spirit? Christ’s Spirit is constantly in us, around us, and between us, calling us to faith, gathering us in fellowship, moving head knowledge to the heart, helping us grow to be more like Christ. Love, joy, peace, and faith are not just some virtues we can achieve on our own. They are what the Spirit produces in us, as the Holy Spirit influences or changes human spirit (John 3:6). The fruit he produces in us are listed in Galatians 5:22: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
So which of the masks that God works through should get your primary attention? If you are in ministry, you really need to focus on the third mask, God the Holy Spirit, through which God works on people here and now, day by day, year by year. Pray to the Father and the Son to send the Spirit.
Lyle Schaller was a great observer of Protestant churches in the 1950s through 90s. I have all his books. Ministry colleague John Kieshnick recalls this observation from Schaller:
People on a spiritual pilgrimage in the Christian life seem to move from their ‘home’ denomination through the three Persons of the Trinity. Roman Catholics emphasize the First Person Father, their Creator and Provider. Many move on to the Second Person Son, their Savior from sin, and become Lutherans and other Protestants. Many of those, in turn, move to the Third Person Spirit, the Sanctifier who empowers them. This happened through the charismatic and Pentecostal movements. As they mature, Pentecostals find more to appreciate in the First Person Father. In a sense people move from head (think) to mind (trust) to heart (feel) back to head.
A reasonable goal today is for Christian church leaders is to promote a well-balanced appreciation of God in all three of his roles.