- Religion and Philosophy
Regular, Normal Christianity ~ The Trinity
I started this series of "Regular, Normal Christianity" articles by setting forth my intent, and disclaimers (that I am sharing my own understanding and not asserting that I am THE arbiter of what ought to be counted as authentic Christianity), in the initial and hub "Regular, Normal Christianity ~ The Premise And Definitions".
I then began our examination of contemporary American Christendom in light of historic and Biblical Christianity by presenting the first article, on the reliability of "The Bible", followed by an article on the concept of "God" and then the person and work of "Jesus of Nazareth". With this article we look at the Trinity, the concept and significance of this essential Christian teaching.
Please see the bottom of this page for a list and links to the previous and subsequent articles.
The mere fact that the Trinity is not within our capacity to understand is evidence of it's truth . . . it's not a concocted doctrine
The Biblical Christian concept of the Trinity is not an idea without difficulty and controversy, it has been from the beginning and remains today an idea that many struggle with and that divides one camp from another and they from another, etc. There are many today who fully reject the teaching that God exists as one God in three persons and who identify themselves as 'Christians', and there are many Christians who fully agree that God is a triune being but wrestle over how that idea is rightly set forth, or, properly articulated.
And "properly articulated" is no small matter contributing to the confusion and discord. When the very concept itself is beyond our own experience, and so, beyond our capacity to really grasp, then using language to explain it can actually make the concept more obscure rather than more readily perceptible. In a previous article, when we talked about God existing in eternity, outside of linear time, I attempted to illustrate this truth by comparing it with the truth that God is also omni-present, that God is everywhere. I suggested that because space is part of our material reality, that we can see our hand in the space right in front of us, we can see the tree in the space over there in the yard, and we can imagine the reality of the store blocks away, etc, but that time is not so observable, it is itself more a concept than an actual thing.
God is not bound by space as we are (we can only be in one place at one time) and He is not bound by time as we are - however, we can say 'God is everywhere at the same time' and imagine what we mean, but we cannot say 'God is everyWHEN at the same time' without saying 'at the same time' which is itself contradictory to the concept we're trying to articulate . . . the point is that God is concurrently existing at every moment of linear time, He is simultaneously experiencing every instant that was, is, and ever will happen in time - but our very language fails us, "concurrent" and "simultaneously" and "moment" and "instant", etc, are all descriptions of properties or aspects of time and our whole point is that God is beyond, outside, and not subject to the properties of time. And again, we saw the same difficulty when we considered the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth - how can He be both fully God and fully man?
This same dilemma hinders us when we consider the idea of the Trinity, Our language, our attempts to articulate the idea, to share what is in my thinking with another by using words, serves to obscure the idea more often than to explain it. One being existing as three persons doesn't make sense, it literally just doesn't add up. Because of this, some assert that in fact the idea of the Trinity simply is not the truth that (like the canon of Scripture and the deity of Jesus, etc) it is a made-up doctrine used by scheming church leaders to advance their own interests, to control or sway the people to do their bidding . . . or something along that line. And these folks quickly point to the Nicaean Council and the creed it produced as when the church invented the doctrine of the Trinity. However, it is a thorough and honest investigation of that council and it's work that demonstrates the weakness of simply reading an official historic document, a prepared and published statement, checking the date and asserting that this is when 'so-and-so' idea was concocted.
The Nicaean Council didn't in fact deal with the idea of the Trinity, it set forth, officially, the truth that Jesus of Nazareth was both fully God and Fully man - the council did not make this idea up during their sessions, they set it forth, officially, as the truth. The church understood and recognized that Jesus is God, but at the time of the Nicaean Council the false teaching of Arianism (which called itself 'Christian' but denied the deity of Jesus) was being promoted by some and so the council, officially, recognized and documented that the Christian church rejected the Arian heresy and had always believed Jesus of Nazareth to be God incarnate. It wasn't until decades later, at the Council of Constantinople that the truth of the Trinity, then under attack by heretical teaching, was directly defended as the historic and Biblical Christian teaching.
The first image, above, is a medieval representation of the Trinity. Directly above is a diagram of this ancient symbol, explaining the relationship between Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Below we see that this symbol is far more ancient than to be a product of latter church councils' prescriptions.
But here is where many misread history and end-up demonstrating exactly what they are attempting to ridicule; the reason many point to Nicaea to be when the doctrine of the Trinity was concocted by church leaders, when Nicaea actually dealt with the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity wasn't dealt with until Constantinople, is because the Trinity is assumed in the documents of Nicaea . . . the idea is not hammered-out in language (one in 'substance', etc) until Constantinople, but the idea is present and assumed at the Nicaean Council. But, even those who want to point to Nicaea and assert the idea of the Trinity is first present there are simply ill-informed. Nearly two centuries before the Nicaean Council we find, not merely the idea the Trinity, but the actually usage of the very term 'Trinity' in the writings of Origin and even earlier in the writing of Tertullian.
However, I offer all that only to demonstrate that holding to the historic Christian idea that God exists as a Trinity, that He is one being existing in three persons, is not a romanticized notion that we simply grew-up with and are uncomfortable or fearful to honestly consider, it's not a doctrine that we simply gobble-up because that's what they teach where we go to church, etc - there is substantial historic evidence that this is what Christians have understood from the beginning and that they base this concept, not on what church leaders tell them they ought to believe, but rather that this is the truth as it is revealed in Scripture.
As with the theological concept of the hypostatic union when considering the idea of the divinity of Jesus, I will leave 'homoousios' and 'homoiousios' (same substance/similar substance) to men more capable than myself and briefly consider the beyond-our-experience reality of the Trinity and the significance of the Trinity.
The beyond-our-experience reality of the Trinity
Many are familiar with presenting the egg as suggestive of the tree in one aspect of the Trinity (yolk, white, shell being 3 but also 1) or water (liquid, solid, vapor being 1 thing in 3 forms), etc, and C.S. Lewis offered lines and dimension - he suggested that as you advance from a single line to a two dimensional square and then to a three dimensional cube, you have something that is still the same thing in each stage, lines, but is yet something specific at each stage . . . the cube is not a line but is made-up of lines and the square is not a cube but makes the cube what it is, etc. The idea that these analogies are attempting to advance is that a thing can be fully the thing it is and still have parts and that those parts are not same as each other. In other words, God is God, He is one God, one being . . . however the Father is God, Jesus is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, together they are all the one being, God. Yet, Jesus is not the Father, and the Father is not the Spirit, etc - they are distinct persons united as one being.
This, of course, is beyond our capacity to grasp, because it is beyond our own experience. Remember Lewis' analogy of the lines and square and cube - what would come next? If you start with a line, then move to a two dimensional square, and then to a three dimensional cube, what would be the next step? We have nothing in our mind as following the cube because the cube is three dimensional and so are we . . . some kind of spherical octagon would just be a different three dimensional shape, it wouldn't be a movement from the three dimensional cube to whatever would come next, it would just be a more complex three dimensional object. But this is exactly the circumstance we are dealing with, the whole idea of God, of an eternal and infinite being existing in a spiritual reality outside of our material world requires that we not then turn around and assert that however it is that He exists must make sense with our material realities of time and space, and person-hood. If God, in His essential being, was comprehensible to us, if He was like us only really, really big and really, really powerful and lived forever, etc, then he wouldn't be God at all - he would be Zeus or some grand notion we had of super-human plus.
The mere fact that the Trinity is not within our capacity to understand is evidence of it's truth. It's not a concocted doctrine, the work done to refute it is the mental gymnastics, it's denying it that is an effort put forward - if we take the Scripture as we find it, we see that the Father is presented to be God, Jesus is presented to be God, and the Holy Spirit is presented to be God, the Christian simply believes it . . . we don't construct some scheme where it all fits together, it's the anti-trinitarians who labor over the theories of physics and rewrite the historic record and struggle over the limits of language, etc. To the Christian the Bible asserts that there is one true God and that the Father is God, Jesus is God, and the Spirit is God, and so, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit . . . it not only doesn't have to fit into our own material universe experience for us to believe it, but in fact, whatever God is couldn't possibly fit into our material universe experience.
The significance of the Trinity.
So why does this theological perplexity even matter, so what if someone identifies themselves as a 'Christian' but rejects the teaching of the trinity? Why is the truth that God is a triune being even important? Because the the truth of Jesus' atonement, of salvation, of our ability to even know God, etc, are nonsense apart from the truth of the Trinity. From the very beginning when God announces "Let us make man in our own image" He is revealing to us that all of this, all creation and everything that is and everything that happens, is all about relationship. Before God made man to love and fellowship with, God loved and enjoyed fellowship . . . the Father loved the Son, the Son loved the Father, etc. There is a reason why philosophic questions about 'the one and the many' stretch from Aristotle & Plato to Huxley & Van Til, and, on to Star Trek . . . it is an essential component, not merely to all creation, but is intrinsic to God Himself (and so, is necessarily an essential component to His creation, that he reveals Himself through).
When the Bible says that "God is love" it's not some poetic nicety, that's not a flowery notion to warm our hearts - God is love because before all, when there was nothing but God, the Father loved the Son, the Son loved the Father, etc . . . that's why God made the world and man, that's why Jesus was sent as the mediator between god and man, that's why God puts within believers His very own Spirit - it's all about unity, the one and the many. Every man-made religion, Hinduism, Islam, Mormonism, Buddhism, JWism, etc, etc, has man being absorbed into God, like a drop of water in a pond we all become one. But that drop is no longer a drop, it's merely part of the pond. In every religion man losses self and is incorporated into the deity, all becomes one, without the many. Christianity alone teaches that you don't lose yourself, you become the self God created you to be, we're not absorbed into God, we are untied with God by Jesus and through the Spirit.
It is the truth of the Trinity that makes Christianity, man, this world, salvation, etc, make any sense at all (because it is the truth). God doesn't say to Himself 'How can I describe Myself to men . . . I know, they have fathers, I'll say I'm like their heavenly Father', God made things the way they are to reveal who He is and what He is like to us, He made man to generate from the previous generation, He made man to continue on through procreation so that we would have fathers so that we would know Him as our heavenly Father. All creation is set-up to demonstrate to us the one and the many, the parts and the whole, and all that has to do with relationships . . . and things are that way, in our world, because that's the way God is, He is a relational being - God is love. And so God calls us to unity, to unite to Him and to each other, to be the ultimate 'us', through this perfect bond of unity . . . Jesus, the God/man and so the perfect mediator between God and man, accomplishes this unity by giving us His own Spirit, God within us, and so the Triune God adopts us, through Jesus, to be His own people and we are boned together with Him through His own Spirit indwelling us. And what does the Bible say is the perfect bond of unity? "Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity."
Before all creation there was love, not an overly romanticized notion about swooning over emotional titillation, but a genuine interest in another's welfare, a right sense of self as we relate to other selves - the reason we have any notion of doing the right thing is because God is a Trinity, the reason we care about others at all is because God is a Trinity, the reason we marry and have children is because God is a Trinity, the reason God created the world and saves men is because He is a Trinity . . . it is what's behind everything and the reason why everything is the way it is, God is love and He is uniting men to Himself through Jesus of Nazareth, and love is the perfect bond of unity.
please share your comments below ~
1. Regular, Normal Christianity ~ "The Bible"
2. Regular, Normal Christianity ~ "God"
3. Regular, Normal Christianity ~"Jesus of Nazareth"
4. Regular, Normal Christianity ~ "The Trinity"
5. Regular, Normal Christianity ~ "Man, Sin, And Spiritual Death"
6. Regular, Normal Christianity ~ "The Covenant, The Promise, The Covenants, And The Gospel"
7. Regular, Normal Christianity ~ "The Atonement - Law & Grace"
please share your comments below ~
Next ~ we will continue, in an orderly manner, examining the the atonement, the gospel message, the church, etc, etc . . . once we cover these essential Christian teachings from an orthodox historic and Biblical perspective, we will examine some of the specific ideas popular contemporary American Christendom advances.