Blogmatics: The Triune God

blogmatics2This is the second part of a new series I’m calling Blogmatics. It’s an attempt on my part to lay out as best I can in as brief a manner as I can all the theological assumptions behind my blog posts.

 
Water.

That was the first example I remember hearing – 1 substance, 3 states.

St. Patrick of Ireland famously used a three-leaf clover – 3 leaves, 1 plant.

I’ve also heard father, son, and brother or mother, daughter, and sister used as an example – 3 roles, 1 person.

No matter how you explain it, though, the doctrine of the Trinity can be difficult if not impossible to understand. Ever since the Council of Nicaea affirmed “one ousia, three hypostases” or “one essence, three ways of being” Christians across the centuries have struggled to understand how 3 can be one.

Nevertheless, Father, Son, and Spirit is how God has revealed Himself throughout scripture and, as 1 John 5 tells us, “these three are one.”

Not surprisingly then, with its confusing math and complicated theological nuance the doctrine of the Trinity has become all but irrelevant for most Christians today, a theological puzzle which doesn’t seem to have any practical application to real life. It’s just something that needs to be affirmed in order to remain orthodox.

That last part at least is true. The doctrine of the Trinity is as fundamental to the Christian faith as belief in the resurrection. Why? Because “Trinity” isn’t simply a descriptor we attach to God, like “compassionate,” “just,” or “merciful. It is, for the Church, the very essence of God. To say Trinity is to say God. To reject the Trinity is, for the Church, to reject God, for we are not monotheists, we are Trinitarians.

But why does that matter?

Why can’t we just smile and nod when someone asks us if we believe in the Trinity, and then move on to more “important” things?

Because if we are creatures made in the image of God and the life we are called to live is supposed to be modeled after our Creator, then the nature of that God will define the nature of our lives.

Which is why the doctrine of the Trinity, despite its intimidating and esoteric appearance, is actually an incredibly pragmatic doctrine.

For,the Triune life of God declares that God is a being in communion, an eternal relationship of outpouring love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, fundamentally God is a life of loving relationship with the other.

This has or at least should have profound implications for the Christian life.

If we are called to emulate God to the world by being “salt” and “light,” then that emulation, or incarnation, will be found in the way we pour out our love for others. The most perfect example of this outpouring love for others is, of course, found in the life of Jesus who “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.”

The sacrificial love embodied by Jesus is the incarnation of the Trinitarian life of God. As Christians, then, we aren’t simply modeling our lives after Christ. In doing so, we are actually modeling our lives after the Triune life of God, just as Jesus did himself. When this happens we prove the truth of the imago dei – that we are creatures made in the image of our Creator.

It is this life of outpouring love by which the Son and the Spirit “proceed” from the Father. It is this same outpouring love that spurred God to create. And it was this outpouring love which drove God towards God’s incarnation in Jesus and death on the cross. This is what it means, what it looks like to say “God is love.” It’s not merely an emotion. It’s a way of being in and for the world.

If we focus only on the confusing math of it all, then we miss what the Church was trying to affirming with the doctrine of the Trinity – that we worship a God whose nature is fundamentally defined by a unified love for the other and that our lives must be modeled after this other oriented love.

I can’t tell you how three can be one.

But I can affirm the doctrine of the Trinity.

Because in the Trinity I see God worth worshiping.

I see a God who chose not to stay wrapped up in Himself, but instead poured out His love by creating all that is in existence so that He could be in a loving relationship with the other – us. And even when we rejected that love, the Trinity continued to pour out God’s love by taking on flesh, dwelling among us, and dying that we might live.

While the math may be confusing, the life of sacrificial love for the other that we see in the Trinity is a simple, beautiful, and holy example of a life all of us are capable of embodying, a life all of us should embody as people made in the image of God.

 

Grace and peace,

Zack Hunt

 
On Monday I’ll be looking at some of the attributes of God – Is God omnipotent? Does God know the future? Is God affected by creation? Does God change? That sort of thing. Until then, I want to hear from you. What do you think about the doctrine of the Trinity?

  • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ Robert Martin

    Bingo. Reflects my own musings on Trinity. I have NO CLUE how to fathom it. I think C.S. Lewis used the analogy of having characters in a Shakespearean play try and figure out how good ole Will writes the play… can’t be done because they aren’t the playwright… So, here we are, the creatures, those things that the Creator created and trying to figure out how to be The Creator… can’t be done because if we could do it, we, ourselves, would be The Creator… and we’re obviously not Reminds me of an old joke:

    Man: “I can make life just like you, God”
    God: “Okay, let’s compete. We’ll each make a man like I did.”
    Man: “RIGHT!” (starts scraping together dirt)
    God: “No. Make you’re own dirt. That’s mine…”

    Setting aside the implied literalist intepretation, it does get to the point that we’re not the same as God… we may be IMAGED after God, but we are not God’s ourselves.

    But YES, definitely… because we believe in the Trinity and the Trinity is the community, the one-ness… and we are to be an image of that one-ness, that implies no longer the atomic individual being good, but the person in community showing love to others…

    Such a beautiful thing: God’s community of the Trinity is built on love. And love is meant to be shared. So God creates the universe to be able to share that love. And we are invited into that community with the Trinity via the Holy Spirit… and when we experience that love, we feel the longing to bring others along with us. It’s missional. It’s love. It’s Trinitarian. And it is SO much awesome.

  • Gaz

    Hi Zack, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed so many things you’ve posted over the past few months since I was pointed in your direction, and despite the fact that I’m not a trinitarian I’ve been overjoyed to say Amen to them all. This post however is a stretch. You cannot properly explain the trinity, it is a “mystery”, and yet all you can say is the usual tired clichés such as a clover or 3 states of matter. According to you if I reject this then I reject God (or so says the church anyway) ~Really~…? The doctrine of the trinity and the Nicean creed was hugely contentious at the time, it was a political act and was very divisive. You openly admit that most trinitarians do not have a clue what it actually means – isn’t that surely a tragic and disastrous failing of “mainstream” christianity? Furthermore, do you think that the only way to God and salvation is through the trinity (whatever that might actually mean to the millions who “believe” in it) or is God loving and merciful enough to allow heretics like me in who have a much simpler explanation for his relationship with his son and power?

    • ZackHunt

      Hey Gaz,

      Thanks for your feedback. I’m sure it won’t come as much surprise, but I have to disagree on just about everything you said. The usual tired cliches you mentioned were by no means “all I can say” on the Trinity. I shared them at the beginning as examples of just that – tired cliches. I then went on to say much more than that.

      I absolutely stand the historical claim of the church that to reject the doctrine of the Trinity is to reject God. It is foundational claim of Christian orthodoxy. Was there some disagreement over the trinitarian formulation leading up to, during, and after Nicaea? Absolutely, but that disagreement was over the formulation, not the concept of the trinity itself.

      I did point out that many in the church today struggle to understand the Trinity, but that doesn’t mean that both clergy and lay with theological training “do not have a clue.” They do. Very much so or at least as much as it is humanly possible to understand the divine. Likewise, the difficulty of understanding a doctrine in no way renders it invalid. If that was the case, we would have to abandon the Christian faith altogether as there is no doctrine I aware of that is unquestionably simple to understand – incarnation, virgin birth, resurrection, salvation, the very existence of God – none of those things are “easy” to fully comprehend. I would agree, though, that a lack of understanding does speaks to poor discipleship on the part of the church. But I don’t think that means “mainstream Christianity” (though I’m not sure I know what you mean by that) is a “tragic and disastrous [failure].

      Finally, I am not in a position to determine who God will ultimately save. All I can speak to is what the Body of Christ has affirmed through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and that is that the source of salvation is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the end, God may choose to save everyone regardless of their confession of faith, but for the church, and for me, it will be a Triune God who does so.

      All that to say, can you believe in God and not believe in the Trinity? Of course. But you can’t claim the Christian faith and reject the Trinity. They are inseparable.

      Hope that helps to clear any confusion about what I was saying in the post.

      • Gaz

        Thanks for your response Zack. I don’t want us to get bogged down into a full theological debate here, but I would like to respond to what you said at the end >>…you can’t claim the Christian faith and reject the Trinity. They are inseparable.<< Obviously I don't agree, but I just wonder what sort of understanding you think the early christians had about this matter. Of course you can pick out quotes and I'd be happy to attempt to respond to those, but I don't think there is anything explictly written down in the Bible to explain the trinity. You mentioned 1 John 5 in the original article and I must admit I cringed due to the whole Johannine Comma controversy – I thought that no-one ever used that bunch of verses any more in reference to the trinity, unless of course you're one of these "King James version only" people, which I'm pretty sure you're not!
        Also what about Old Testament Jews – what did they believe about the nature of God and his relationship to their promised Messiah?

        It's common to hear it said in my church "those who believe in the trinity worship a different god" and this frustrates me as it drives a wedge and highlights the differences rather than the similarities between ours and other christians like yourself who I hold a lot of respect and brotherly love for. It's therefore to me quite surprising to hear someone like you, and I guess you'd describe yourself as a liberal christian, but basically saying the exact same as I've heard but from the other side – that those who don't hold to the doctrine of the trinity are basically worshipping a different god. It's simply not the case – we may disagree about his nature and the nature of Jesus but we still would agree that the gospel is ultimately a very simple message and that therefore signing up to a largely incomprehensible 3rd century document rather than merely following the simple command to follow Jesus is in my mind missing the entire point of faith and discipleship.

        • ZackHunt

          Again, I appreciate your reply, but we’re at an irreconcilable impasse.

          The notion that you can toss away the foundational creeds of the church that define Christianity and still claim to follow the Christian faith is incoherent. It’s like saying you’re going to play baseball without a baseball. Those creeds came about because Spirit led people who affirmed them recognized that gospel you claim is “a very simple message” is really not that simple (nor is the 4th century Creed of Nicaea “largely incomprehensible”) because following Jesus is never simple and its certainly not simple to claim a carpenter from Nazareth was actually God incarnate. Simply put, the early creeds and confessions of faith are every bit as intrinsic to Christianity as the Bible – they were created to guide our faith and discipleship. You can disagree, but that leads to our second impasse….

          The orthodoxy of the Trinity in Christian tradition is not a matter of personal opinion. It’s a historical fact. Again, you’re free to reject it, but it is a documentable fact that the church has confessed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit since the dawn of the faith – including in the Bible, and including Jesus who commanded us to baptize “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

          This isn’t a liberal/conservative issue. If anything, I’m taking a hyper-traditional perspective on this. It’s your rejection of one to the most ancient confessions of the church that would be classified as “progressive.”

          That being said, there’s one thing we can definitely agree on. Your church is right – if they believe in “Jesus only” and reject the Trinity then we do worship two different gods.

          Again, I genuinely appreciate you taking the time to respond, but we have two radically different and irreconcilable perspectives on this. Or to play off what you said, there isn’t a wedge between our positions. It’s more like a Grand Canyon.

          • drew

            Zack,

            I often enjoy having conversations with Muslims, some of the most interesting parts of the Islamic faith is that they believe that the teachings and life of Jesus were a gift from God, so they are to know and follow those teachings.

            It is through our exploration of this topic I think we find many Muslims coming to know Jesus and be saved. Their Islamic roots make understanding the trinity as almost insulting to God, that he would even need to be “split”, in a sense.

            What I find most assuring in the Gospels is that Jesus tells people to come to Him, follow Him, and this is the road to salvation. He does not say you need to come to Him, believe in the Trinity, believe in the elect, believe in premillennialism. He just says to simply follow Him.

            I am a firm believer that we simply try to direct people towards the person of Jesus Christ, He will do the rest. The closer people get to Jesus, the more they will know the Truth. Jesus will guide their hearts and mind. We will call it the Holy Spirit, a part of the Godhead three in one, while others may not call it that (not out of denial, but out of misunderstanding, cultural barriers, etc), and I think that’s okay.

            I find this with missionaries alot. They want to bring American Christianity, not Jesus. Once you are converted, you need to dress like us, and stop going to the Mosque, instead of knowing Jesus as the Son of God and still going to a mosque, praying to Allah, studying the teachings and life of Jesus Christ (as a Muslim should).

            Is this a fair critique or am I being naive?

        • Brennan McMahon

          What do you do with all the “I Am’s” Jesus says, as well as when He says “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Paul says Jesus is the image of invisible God, etc, etc

          There is a virtual cornucopia of places in the Bible where it implies God = Father, Son, Holy Spirit…they simply require a little discernment while “rightly dividing” outside dogma from inside truths.

  • Ben Nasmith

    I recently discovered Richard of St. Victor from the tenth century. He has some wonderful things to say about the Trinity and attempts an explanation as to why divinity requires plurality of persons. Without others, there would be no love within the Godhead. He also uses the human being as an inverse analogy for the Trinity: humans are one person with multiple substances (body/soul). The Trinity is one substance with multiple persons. Today, Richard Swinburne has written an excellent chapter (2) in his book “Was Jesus God” where he explains how if God exists, he must exist as a Trinity – three persons, no more, no less. I’ve also written a post entitled “Is the Trinity illogical?” http://wp.me/p3mheW-2a.
    Bottom line, I think we often play the mystery card too soon (not saying that you do). It is wonderful to attempt to understand the Trinity, and by no means a futile or irreverent goal. At the very least, we can understand the boundaries within which the truth lies (I.e. modalism vs. subordinationism). As Richard of St. Victor says, “What
    if I falter in running the course? I will rejoice that I totally ran, labored
    and sweated to the extent of my powers in seeking the face of my Lord.”
    All the best,

  • Emily Rose

    You know, I really like this article, and the Trinity is an area of Christianity that intrigues me (especially since I am now taking a college Theology class). I’d just like to share a thought. I’ve tried bringing this to a level where we as humans might understand, so how I see and can explain the Trinity is this:
    The Trinity in my mind can be explained very simply by looking at a person. In comparison with the Trinity, people are made up of three parts: the mind, the body, and the soul. All three have separate functions, and yet they all make up the same whole. Without one, the person would cease to exist. As a metaphor, the Father is the mind, the Son is the body, and the Holy Spirit is the soul. They are separate parts of one whole, all working together as one. You cannot have one part without the other, else the very essence of God’s Being would cease because all three make up the entity that is God.
    The entire subject of the Trinity is very complicated, and yet very simple at the same time. I suppose I’m a strange person because I see the Trinity to actually be a very logical thing. It makes sense to me, though I’m not sure how to thoroughly communicate my thoughts and ideas. Your thoughts?