At long last, we recommence our Rooted series. In this installment I won’t answer a specific question. Instead, I’ll briefly address the doctrine of the Trinity; a topic that elicits all sorts of questions. Last month, we spent several class sessions discussing God’s Trinitarian existence. I’d like to provide a brief recap of those discussions, and remind you why believing in a three-person God is both thoroughly biblical, and delightfully practical.
Adherents of every major Christian tradition confess that God is Triune. We believe that God is Father, Son and Spirit. These three are distinct persons, yet share one essence. If you think that sounds abstruse and philosophical, you’re quite right! The intellectual cream of Christianity’s crop has spent two millennia discussing the Trinity. Believers have plumbed the depths of metaphysical possibilities, straining to conceptualize the God they worship. But this begs a question; if this doctrine is seemingly inscrutable, why is it pivotal to our faith? As Mike Reeves says, the Trinity may seem, “like some pointless and unsightly growth on our understanding of God, one that could surely be lopped off with no consequence other than a universal sigh of relief.” (Delighting in the Trinity, 10)
The Trinity appears to be hopelessly complex. So why even discuss it? Can’t we relegate this doctrine to a position of relative unimportance?
Here are two reasons this is untenable (some of this material is adapted from Reeves’ aforementioned book, so do yourself a favor and buy it).
First, the biblical writers don’t allow us to treat the matter with indifference. As Christians, we strive to understand, believe and obey the Bible. Accordingly, we seek an understanding of God that’s shaped by the biblical witness. But once we concede this point, we’re faced with an array of questions about God’s nature. What are we to make of Paul’s Trinitarian grammar (see 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Philippians 2:1)? Why do writers steeped in Jewish monotheism contend that Jesus is worthy of worship (Revelation 5:1-14)? Why is the Spirit treated like a distinct person from the Father, and not simply God’s active presence (see John 14-16)? Why does Jesus refer to himself, the Father and the Spirit by a singular “name” (Matthew 28:19)? When describing Jesus’ identity, why do New Testament writers frequently allude to Old Testament passages about Yahweh (Phil 2:11; Hebrews 1:10-12)? Are they drawing an equivalence between the two figures? These questions demand answers. Either Jesus and the Spirit have a share in the divine identity, or they don’t. And unless we make some judgments about God’s nature, we have no hope of understanding these passages (and many, many others). Unless we wish to treat Scripture as unintelligible, we must read with a particular idea of God in mind. Furthermore, if we deny the eternal deity of Jesus or the Spirit, we end up with a conception of God foreign to historic Christianity.
This brings me to the second reason we cannot disregard the Trinity; this doctrine has far-
reaching implications. What’s the most fundamental thing we can say about God? Perhaps we could say that God is power. As we reflect on the majesty of creation, we might infer that God is a Creator; a Potentate. But is such knowledge reassuring? Do we have any reason to hope that said being will act benevolently towards us? As Karl Barth once noted, a being of mere power sounds more like Satan than the God of Scripture. Perhaps the most basic thing about God is his self-existence. God is. He’s “being itself” (as many have said) and the ground of all other being. That might be a perfectly reasonable philosophical deduction. But it’s just that; a deduction. Such an abstract conception of God may account for the universe’s existence. But is this God personal? Is he personable? And is he the kind of God who wants to know me, or whom I’d like to know?
Christians have a different starting point. We begin with Jesus, the perfect revelation of God (John 1:18). Jesus says that God is a Father. God doesn’t just possess fatherly qualities. Rather, because Jesus is eternally the Son, God is eternally the Father. From all eternity, God has given life to his Son in the perfect fellowship of the Spirit. And because God is a Father, he always acts fatherly. From everlasting to everlasting, he is life-giving, other-focused, generous, and benevolent. As Jesus says to his Father, “you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).
To put it simply, God is love. Before God ever loved us, the Father, Son and Spirit shared a perfect love relationship. And when God acts, he acts out of this character. Out of love, he creates. And out of love, he redeems. That’s just the kind of God he is. And that’s great news for us. God’s love isn’t dependent on us. It’s not as if God wasn’t loving prior to loving us. On the other hand, God wants to love us, because he’s just that kind of God; a God who gives himself for the benefit of others. And as we receive love from this God, we’re drawn away from our sinful, self-obsessive thoughts. We’re drawn out of ourselves to love God and others. And in so doing, we image the God who loved us first. A God who merely rules, or exists (or whatever) cannot transform our hearts in this way. So the Trinity makes a world of difference. I’ll conclude with one more gem from Reeves;
This God simply will not fit into the mold of any other. For the Trinity is not some inessential add-on to God, some optional software that can be plugged into him. At bottom this God is different, for at bottom he is not Creator, or Ruler or even “God” in some abstract sense: he is the Father, loving and giving life to his Son in the fellowship of the Spirit. A God who is in himself love, who before all things could “never be anything but love.” Having such a God happily changes everything. (Ibid., 38)