Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jesus Christ and the Trinity

The doctrine of the Incarnation is closely related to another cardinal Christian doctrine, that of the divine Trinity. Jesus is called the Second Person of the Trinity, along with the Father as the First Person and the Holy Spirit as the Third Person. Although the Trinity, like the Incarnation, is often taken to be a hopeless mystery or paradox, it is nothing of the sort. Before explaining the apologetic significance of the Trinity, it should be described briefly.

The Bible that Jesus believed in and taught from (Matthew 5:17-20; John 10:33) affirms that God is one Lord (Deuteronomy 6:4), deserving our complete worship. This was the central credo of the Jews. Polytheism was anathema. Jesus also spoke often of his heavenly Father and of the Holy Spirit, making them central to his teachings. To understand Jesus, one must understand his relationship to the Father and the Spirit, thus opening up discussion about the Trinity. While there are intimations and anticipations of the Trinity in the Hebrew Bible,[1] the central planks of the idea are not revealed until the New Covenant revelation, which teaches that there is one God (1 Corinthians 8:4), but that the Father is God (Matthew 6:9), the Son is God (John 1:1-2; Colossians 2:9), and the Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4). But there is one God, not three. While the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated over time, the essential concepts for the doctrine are contained in the Bible itself. The Athanasian Creed (381) puts it this way:


We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity. Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. For such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Ghost uncreated.[2]

God is, therefore, one what (or Godhead) and three whos (or persons). The three persons are equally divine, eternal, holy, and so on. The Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father, nor is the Spirit the Father or the Son. However, they are one (or united) in their shared deity.

There is no reason to take this as a hopeless paradox or contradiction. The Trinity is not the nonsensical mathematical equation of 3=1, but rather a profound statement of three-ness and oneness. There are three persons in one Godhead. The members of the Trinity are alike in deity, but different in some functions. For example, God, the Son offers himself for atonement of human sin. This is not the ministry the Father or the Spirit. Yet the unity between the members of the Trinity is so strong that they are one God, not three gods. The members of the Trinity live and work together so intimately that theologians use the term perichoresis to describe their relationship. This literally means “to dance together.” At the heart of eternal reality, then, is a dance of love.


Far from being a hindrance to rational belief and knowledge, the Trinity—as brought to light through Jesus’ loving relationship to the Father and the Spirit—opens up the profundity of God’s being. God is not a faceless oneness, a solitary entity, who knew no genuine relationship until he created the universe of finite things. God has always been a unity of three mutually loving and communicating persons. As Chesterton quipped, “It was not well for God to be alone.”[3] In his high priestly prayer to the Father, Jesus speaks of his relationship with the Father “before the world began” (John 17:5). The doctrine of the Trinity secures the fact that love precedes the creation of the universe, that the deepest possible dimension of being is personal and interpersonal. Love and communication has always existed at the highest possible level in the Trinity. No other worldview stakes this bold claim. The God of Islam (Allah) is irreducibly singular in every respect. He is personal, but alone. Eastern religions take personality to be an illusion that must be transcended in mystical experience. Naturalism claims that personality is a latecomer in a godless universe and has no privileged status. It will die at the final command of entropy.

The Trinity is not a hopeless paradox, an opaque mystery, or a flat-out contradiction. Rather, it distinguishes Christianity from the two other monotheistic religions (Judaism and Islam) and gives a meaning and significance to personality (love and communication) unavailable according to any other worldview.[4]


[1] See Millard Erickson, God in Three Persons (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995)
[2] The original creed says “the Father uncreate…” I have updated the language by adding “uncreated.” I have quoted only part of the creed.
[3] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (orig. pub., 1908; Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1959), 136.
[4] For more on the logic of the Trinity, see John Feinberg, No One Like Him (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books); Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), chapter 29.

4 comments:

pgepps said...

Absolutely! I find it quite tiresome to constantly hear Trinity used as a thought-stopper in formulations like, "Well, no one can explain the Trinity, either; we just have to leave it a mystery." Mystery is only meaningful insofar as we find our submissive, Spirit-led strivings still have limitations due to our imperfect sanctification and God's longsuffering toward those who haven't yet believed.

I like to point out (and C. S. Lewis's "Beyond Personality" in Mere Christianity has a lot to do with this) that there is simply no reason to treat God's personhood as thought it must involve an experience exactly like ours. Analogy and the imago dei teaching require that we affirm that God's being a person includes experiences which correspond to ours, but Incarnation itself should suggest that only a special act of God could give God the experience of being just like us.

So when we affirm that

the Father is the same God as the Son and the Spirit
the Son is the same God as the Father and the Spirit
the Spirit is the same God as the Father and the Son

Father is not Son or Spirit
Son is not Father or Spirit
Spirit is not Father or Son

Father, Son, and Spirit are each Persons with distinct experiences, memories, and emotions
Father, Son, and Spirit are each God whose spiritual and moral ends, and final volitions, are always univocal

Note that this is, of course, what we affirm about God in Godself. We do so, as always, contingently--but knowing that only God's grace can reach beyond our contingent, shadowy, and sin-tainted knowing and make our faith into sight.

Daniel said...

"there is simply no reason to treat God's personhood as though it must involve an experience exactly like ours."

Since we shouldn't exact God like ourselves, how in our finiteness can we possibly FULLY comprehend the Trinity? In part, yes. In full, absolutely not. And given the proper understanding of Mystery, that shouldn't be a problem. Mystery, as "yet to be reavealed", not Mystery as "we will never know."

pgepps said...

Since the word "comprehend" has such a vexed natural-language history (including as it does the sense which gives us "comprehensive" meaning all-inclusive, and etymologically relating to "grasp," one's laying-hold-of a thing seized, controlled, or known), I don't think it's very useful.

Trivial truth: we never comprehend (in one sense) anything, yet we find many things entirely comprehensible (in a slightly different sense).

Meaningful truth: that God's experience and ability and wisdom involve orders of complexity far beyond ours is no argument against His ability to make Himself known to us in any degree of completeness and precision He chooses to make us susceptible of. Our limitations as believers, now, are some combination of harmless differences between the particular kind of creatures God made us in His unstinting and truly creative love, and some harmful debilities from our own sinfulness which God has, in His long-suffering toward those who may yet believe, chosen to remove only gradually.

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