Making Sense of the Trinity 

Article 1: Title: Making Sense of the Biblical Witness about the Trinity.

When I bring up the Trinity, people’s reactions vary from joy to confusion, to asking good questions about its relevance for today’s faith. My intent is to clarify the development of this doctrine and its important meaning to our faith today over this series. The development of the doctrine of the Trinity grew out of a need to make sense of many Scriptures in the Bible. In the New Testament we have verses like John 14:9, where Jesus says, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” and John 10:30, “The Father and I are one." Christians have needed to explain these passages when compared to the scene at Jesus’ Baptism where God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit are separately all present. How can Jesus and God the Father be one, while at the same time Jesus is shown as separate from God the Father? Christians also needed to consider Old Testament passages that speak of God’s Spirit, for example in Genesis 1:2, we read, “And the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” Early Church leaders developed and used the doctrine of the Trinity to explain the nature of God in thinking about these types of passages. This doctrine grows out of the Biblical witness to God. A great early Christian writer and defender of the faith was Tertullian (from North Africa) who lived from approximately A.D. 155 to 230. He described God the Trinity as three persons, one substance. Bishop Irenaeus, who lived approximately AD 130-202, defended the Trinity. He pointed out that the Son “was always with the Father.” Also, early documents of church services show that by the beginning of the 200s, churches were using language in worship for three divine persons in our one God. This type of thought and practice was normal for Christianity at this time. However, some came along with other ideas, most notably a priest named Arius, who lived approximately AD 250-336. He questioned if Jesus was fully God, saying that Jesus was a created creature. His famous motto about Jesus was, “there was a time when he was not.” This conflicted with what the Bible teaches about Jesus. Also, how could Jesus forgive sins and how can we worship Jesus if Jesus is not fully God? In response to the stir created by Arius, the Church held a council meeting of bishops in 325. This council, along with the next one in 381, developed the Nicene Creed, affirming the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equally worthy of worship, equally divine, and united as one Being. The Trinity is deeply rooted not just in our past, but the present also. In A Brief Statement of Faith (1983) the PC (U.S.A) affirms, “In life and in death we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God.” Additional Resources: For more information, please read the Nicene Creed and its preface, in The Book of Confessions, PC(U.S.A). If you do not have a copy, it is worth ordering from the PC(U.S.A.) website Item # OGA07017 for a nominal fee. In the next article, I will cover the unity of the Trinity.

Article 2 Title: Trinitarian Unity, is God a Mathematical Paradox?

In the last newsletter I wrote to you about the history of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. In this second part of the series, I cover the unity of the Trinity. How can the Trinity be three persons and yet united, and does this mean we have a mathematical paradox for a God?

The doctrine of the Trinity, as discussed in the last article, developed out of making sense of what the Bible tells us about God. This Triune nature of God is quite comforting. This is because by God’s own nature, the three persons of the Trinity are in unity and are relational. When we think of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we can think about the Father as being the Father in relationship to the Son and the Son as being Son in relationship to the Father. This does not mean they are just like a human Father and Son, but God has used human language to describe the relationship in a way we can understand. Some metaphors help describe aspects of God but miss the interrelational aspect of the Trinity. For example, a Christian named Irenaeus called Jesus and the Holy Spirit the “two hands” of God. This has some value in helping us think about the Trinity, but loses the aspect of personal relationship. The Bible also uses metaphors to help us understand God. Psalm 73 says of the Lord, “You are my rock.” This can be comforting at times when we rely on God’s strength, but we again lose the personal aspect and it only explains an aspect of God.

Knowing that God is by God’s very nature relational and that each person of the Trinity is in community with one another is comforting. Though God is the ultimate power, we have a God who shows us in the very being of God there is love, community, and relationship, in addition to God sovereign power. Since God already had community, our God was not a lonely God who had to create us to have relationships. God did create us to have relationship with us, but out of love, not necessity.

Also, note that I said the Trinity is three and one, not three equals one. The Trinity is a living relational God, three persons in unity, not a mathematical paradox. Reducing the Trinity to a mathematical paradox presents the Trinity in such a way that we can say nothing of explanation of the Triune nature of God. Yes, there is always mystery where God is concerned, as we cannot fully grasp God, but on the other hand we should embrace what God has shown us.

We find overall that the doctrine of the Trinity is not a strange mathematical paradox, but is a way to show that the three persons of the Trinity form a unity. Our Book of Confessions calls this unity the Godhead. I like the way the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, “In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.”

Additional Resources: A reasonably priced book I like is Worshipping Trinity, by Robin Parry, next time you are ordering books on-line you may want to examine it. In the next article, I will focus on the meaning for us today of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Theological Study - The Trinity - Part 3 of 3

In the last two articles, I have covered the development of the doctrine of the Trinity and the unity of the Trinity. In this article, I cover how the doctrine of the Trinity serves to comfort us in letting us know that the God that the Bible testifies to in Jesus, is the real God.

A key insight that the Church has established is that the works of the Trinity are not divisible. This just means that each member of the Trinity participates in each other’s work, even though some actions are primarily associated with one member. You cannot divide their works up with perfect distinction. As in the creation, the Bible tells us in Genesis 1:1-2 the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was empty, a formless mass cloaked in darkness. And the Spirit of God was hovering over its surface.” And John 1:3 tells us of Jesus, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” In a wonderful way the members of the Trinity make room for one another. This calls to mind and strengthens the community aspect of the Trinity discussed last month.

However, a most important aspect and insight into the Trinity begins when we realize that by the doctrine of the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are all equally God. In fact they have been equally God for all eternity. This is important because it means that in Jesus, as attested to in the Scripture; we see the reality of God. We are not seeing a lesser created creature trying to show us God, but the real God, our creator.

I love to think about this as it reminds me that Jesus, through whom everything was made, loved us enough to enter creation, suffering to save us. The Westminster Confession says, “The Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities.”

I hope that you can see the importance of this doctrine to all Christians, young and old alike. It is important that we study these things. Though they take time and effort to understand, the Holy Scriptures teach us to prepare, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15b) The more we understand, the better we will be able to give an account with gentleness and reverence when the chance arrives.

The keys to remember are that the doctrine of the Trinity makes sense of the Biblical witness of God. The Trinity is not an abstract mathematical paradox. The triune God is a relational God, all three persons of God make room for one another in all the acts we see, and have always been equally divine. Lastly, in each person of the Trinity, the real living loving God is expressed.

Additional Resources: Please take a look at Appendix E of our Book of Order (PC U.S.A) and read about the meanings in our seal of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

 

By Jeff Warrick