In our culture when engaging with Postmoderns and Millennials ‘proof-texts’are no longer proving to be effective as a means of communication. Increasingly people today respond to hearing about our personal life experiences and not a list of truths that they are expected to simply assent to. They want to hear your life story rather than words about what you believe.
Where did the idea of the Trinity come from?
The concept of the Trinity is a central belief of the Christian faith. Although not explicitly stated, it can be inferred from various passages in the Bible. For example we can glimpse the Trinity in the Creation story (Genesis 1:26 and 3:22) and also in the New Testament, with Jesus's words in Matthew 28:19.
The New Testament hints at the concept of the Trinity (with some very bold claims being made by Jesus about himself that incensed many of those who heard him) but nowhere is it clearly stated and defined for us (perhaps deliberately?). That was the work of later church councils, which were heavily influenced by Greek modes of thinking and had an increasing focus on definitions rather than the inherent reality and relationships involved.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit working together
We can note the three persons of the Trinity working together at various points in the Bible:
- In creation; Genesis 1:1-2; John 1:1-3
- At Jesus’ birth; Matthew 1:20-21
- At Jesus’ baptism; Matthew 3:16-17
- In Jesus’ teaching and ministry; John 14:23-26
- In the individual Christian’s new birth; John 3:5
A Developing Understanding
At the Council of Nicea in 325AD the doctrine of the Trinity was defined in the following terms:
There is only one God. But God consists of three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are all equally God.
But how did we get to this point? Jesus claimed to be God but it was not until after the resurrection as they thought back on everything that had happened that the early disciples began to understand the full implications of this.
And that is how Theology started. People already knew about God in a vague way. Then came a man who claimed to be God; and yet He was not the sort of man you could dismiss as a lunatic. He made them believe Him. They met Him again after they had seen Him killed. And then, after they had been formed into a little society or community, they found God somehow inside them as well: directing them, making them able to do things they could not do before. And when they worked it all out they found they had arrived at the Christian definition of the three-personal God. C S Lewis, Mere Christianity (Part 4).
At the heart of the Trinity there is a paradox (a truth that exists in tension). That God is both one and yet three persons.
A full understanding of the implications of the Trinity arose primarily out of Christian experience. It was a way of explaining God’s being that fitted the evidence. The first Christians sought to answer the question, ‘Who was Jesus?’, and the inescapable conclusion that they came to was that he was God.
Jesus - Fully God and Fully Human
However, that raises further questions for us. For example how do we reconcile the following statements?
- that Jesus is God
- that Jesus is also fully human
If Jesus is only God then it is not possible for him to identify with our humanity. Nothing that he does can affect or benefit us. There is a uncrossable chasm between us and him. But by being born as a human baby and sharing every aspect of our human nature he reached down into our world and is therefore able to identify with us completely. He has become like us.
It is important to realise that in doing this he did not choose to exercise any ‘Godlike-powers’. All the miracles that he performed were achieved through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the same Holy Spirit that is available to us today as we trust and seek to do our Father’s will.
The best argument for the Trinity is that it is the only practical explanation that fits the known facts and our deepest human need. Anything else and the cross of Jesus has no relevance for us. There would remain an unbridgeable gulf between us and God/ Jesus.
Popular Illustrations of the Trinity
There are a number of popular illustrations people use to illustrate the Trinity. For example:
- an equilateral triangle
- a three-leafed shamrock
- H2O existing as ice, water and steam
- three-dimensional space
But, while to an extent helpful all such examples fail to demonstrate the personal nature and interconnectedness of the Trinity and can therefore also be misleading for us. Unfortunately our human language is limited. How do you describe the aroma of coffee to someone who has no sense of smell?
I find this to be a more helpful way of looking at it:
In God's dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. . . . It is something we could never have guessed, and yet, once we have been told, one almost feels one ought to have been able to guess it because it fits in so well with all the things we know already. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p.161-162.
Or thinking about it more poetically we have Saint Augustine's:
‘The lover, the beloved, and love’ (from The Trinity, Books VIII.14; IX.2, and XV.10).
The “Scutum Fidei" (a Latin phrase meaning "Shield of the Faith”. 12th Century
The Triquetra (or Trinity Knot), an ancient Germanic symbol that was adopted by the Celtic Church as a symbol of the Trinity
While recognising that all such illustrations have their limitations, they encourage us to expand our view (horizons) and glimpse a bigger truth. However, the reality of the Trinity (and God) is always going to be so much more than we can possibly think or imagine.
If God is love, then love requires an object. The Trinity exists as an eternal dance of relationship and interaction. We are engaging with a 'mystery' here, something that was hidden that has now been revealed. Coming to an understanding the Trinity is a faith journey, it is more a matter of the heart than the head.
How is the Trinity relevant for us today?
Through the Trinity we can relate to God as Father (creator), Son (Jesus, who shares our common humanity) and Holy Spirit (who comes alongside us and gives us power to live by).
The different persons of the Trinity can also help us in our worship. Through the Holy Spirit, we are able to come to Jesus, who speaks on our behalf to God his Father and takes us into his presence. When we worship, we embrace God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At different times, or even during the same prayer, our thoughts and hearts may dwell on each person of the Trinity individually, but we are left in no doubt that we are worshipping the one God.
The doctrine of the Trinity also meets our deepest needs. We are made in the image of God, and in the life of the Trinity we can catch a glimpse of who we are meant to be in relationship to God and one another. Maintaining the tension of belief in the Trinity helps us to avoid over-emphasising one person of the Trinity at the expense of any of the others. It is essential that we maintain this biblical balance.
If you want to go deeper the following may be helpful:
- The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware. An Orthodox perspective and some of the clearest teaching on the Trinity that I have found.
- The Shack by William P Young. It is important to remember that this is fiction but it is thought provoking nonetheless. I found it particularly helpful in encouraging me to think about God as Father in a fresh way.