Friday, August 9, 2019

What is the Trinity?

One of the most awe-inspiring and important doctrines in Christianity, as well as one of the most difficult to understand, is the Trinity. In fact, there is a sense in which you could say it is impossible to understand. That might be discouraging to hear at the start of a discussion on the subject,  but acknowledging it ultimately permits us to come to terms with it. We are attempting to discover an intimate aspect of the nature of God. We, with our finite and fallen minds, cannot really expect to tie everything up nice and neatly. Concepts like this must, at the last, be taken at face value. The truth comes from what God has told us, not from what we can figure out on our own. We can still form a partial understanding, though, and it is important to try.

Defining the Trinity

With that said, I want to start with as simple a statement as I can manage on what the Trinity means. The Bible is very clear that there is only one God, and He alone ought to be worshipped (Ex. 20:2–3; Deut. 6:4–5). However, the New Testament introduces a new angle on the truth of the oneness of God. We are told, frequently, that God exists as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:18–19; John 1:1; 10:30; 14:8–11; 14:16–17; Rom. 8:15–17; Phil. 2:5–6; Col. 1:12–17). That is a considerable list of references, but truth be told, it would be difficult to find a page in the NT that did not express this point one way or another.

As a result, Christians had to develop a different way to understand God than that used in Judaism. We cannot deny that God is one, but we cannot avoid that He is three. So we say that God has one essence, or nature, and three persons. It is possible to differentiate the persons in the ways that they relate to and reference one another, as well as by the works that they perform. However, they cannot actually be separated. They exist in eternal and perfect unity, without a seam in their wills, their power, and their glory. The persons of God are an indivisible being, which is why Christianity is monotheistic. While the word “trinity” does not appear in the Bible, it describes these concepts that are central to biblical faith.

Illustrating the Trinity

That states the facts. We can then go on to using analogy and philosophy in an attempt to get closer to understanding. Admittedly, analogies are difficult, also. They always end up being too limited. But they can be helpful so long as we acknowledge the limitations. For example, some people have described the Trinity as being like the three phases of matter, or like the sections of a finger. Water can be a solid, liquid, or gas, but it still continues to be water. You can focus on the bottom, middle, or top section of your index finger, but they still make one digit. Those pictures give us insight into the Trinity.

Again, though, it is incomplete insight. If you think of the Trinity as being too much like water, then you might think that God switches back and forth between the persons. That is not the case. God the Son always exists with God the Father. They are not different forms of the same personality. And it would be misleading to lean too heavily on the finger metaphor. It suggests that the sum is greater than the parts. Also, if you were missing one or even two joints, you would still have a finger. But that is not true of God. The Spirit, for example, is not a building block of God. He is God.

My favorite analogy, the one I feel pictures the Trinity most closely, is the human being. That is appropriate, given that humanity is the image of God (Gen 1:27). Each of us has a tripartite existence. You have a body, you have a soul (or mind), and you have a spirit. Which of those is the “real you?” Without the mind, you could not have a will to choose anything. Without the body, you could not have a presence to communicate and act on what you choose. And without the spirit, there would be no life in you. Each aspect is “you,” and the whole of them is also “you.”

It is still not exactly right. Once more, the sum is arguably greater than its parts. More importantly, the parts can be desynchronous. The mind can move the body to do things that they body, in a sense, does not want to do, and vice versa. These disconnects are a result of our fallenness and our limited being. Still, it moves us a little closer to the mark.

Describing the Trinity

Moving on from these word pictures, some philosophical speculation can help us understand why God has to exist as a Trinity. The Bible says that “God is love” in 1 John 4:8. So God’s revelation of Himself assures us of this. However, it is also an assumption we can make. If there is a God, then the best way to describe Him is as the perfection of all virtues. He, after all, would have to be their source and the being to which they refer. He can be described as intelligence because all thought is in imitation of Him. He is power because all ability to act descends from Him. Likewise, if we can love, then God must also be loving.

But what is love? It is the choice to give of yourself to another. In other words, it is selfless relationship. That means, to be truly loving, there must be someone else to give your love to.

If God were only one person, that would present a problem. He would be incomplete without an object of care. He loves humanity, of course, but He created humanity. That means there was a state where He existed while we did not. If God had to make us in order to complete Himself, then He was not a sufficient being within Himself. That would make Him less than perfect, which would mean He could not be God. It would place a limitation on Him that would make Him unreliable.

With the Trinity, however, this problem is avoided. God has always been love because God has always had relationship. The Father loves the Son, the Son is the beloved of the Father, and the Spirit is the love between them. This sub-doctrine of the Trinity, known as perichoresis, gives rational weight to the revelatory truth that required its development.

Requiring the Trinity

This may still beg one final question. Why believe the Bible at all? Why go through all this work, just to come up with something that no one can totally understand? Well, as I have said many times before, that is because the facts of history demand it.

It is beyond rational dispute that Jesus Christ was crucified and then rose back to life. There is no naturalistic explanation for why this happened. No one executed by the Romans could have survived the process, let alone survive the wounds for days afterward, singlehandedly escape a tomb guarded by soldiers, made his way into the city a few miles away, entered a locked room, and then appeared to his friends as anything more than a pitiable mess. And if, instead, you simply assume Jesus stayed dead, where is His body? Even His enemies admitted it was gone. Again, it makes no sense to believe the disciples could have stolen it. Nor is it rational to assume that they created this religion on the basis of a lie, one that made them no wealth, gave them no influence, and resulted in their torture and death. The Bible records a miracle, but a miracle is the only way to make sense of the facts.

This, in turn, leads to other conclusions. Jesus made Himself out to be equal with God. With His resurrection, He proved it. So that’s the point here. We need an idea like the Trinity because we need a way to understand that Jesus is God. We need to understand it because it is self-evident. The explanation follows from the evidence. The resurrection is at the center of why this concept was developed. It expresses the truth as it has to be, even if we cannot grasp it entirely.

When all is said and done, accepting the Trinity is still a matter of faith. We are too limited to ever reach the point of total comprehension. But faith does not have to be, and should not be, irrational. It comes about from what we know to be true, and it is strengthened by the elements and pictures we can understand. We have what we need, and that is enough.

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