A few thoughts on the Trinity

2 10 2012


Regarding the study of the Holy Trinity, 17th century scholar and pastor John Owen writes:

 Let him bring with him a due reverence of the majesty, and infinite, incomprehensible nature of God, as that which is not to be prostituted to the captious and sophistical scanning of men of corrupt minds, but to be humbly adored, according to the revelation that he hath made of himself.

–John Owen, A Brief Vindication and Declaration of the Trinity.

 Owen’s remarks are helpful for two reasons.  First, Owen makes us aware of a subtle temptation when discussing the Trinity.  Namely, when discussing doctrines as deep and difficult as the Trinity we will be tempted to “sophistical scanning.”  In other words, the temptation is to adopt complex philosophy and vocabulary to puff ourselves up with knowledge, and therefore pride.  This is of course a subtle temptation in all of theological study.  We must be ever mindful that the purpose of theology is to deepen relationship with God, not merely to deepen knowledge for the sake of deepening knowledge.

Owen not only teaches us what we must avoid, but he also teaches us what we must pursue, that being “humble adoration.”  I remember sailing into “blue water” for the first time.  When you stand on the beach and look out at the ocean, there is a sense that you can comprehend and appreciate the beauty of what you are beholding.  And yet to step into the ocean and sail beyond the horizon, into the blue water is to experience something altogether different.  Beyond the horizon one knows the ocean in a different way than one who stands on the beach.  Beyond the horizon one knows the ocean as vast, unpredictable, awesome (and awful!), and beyond our comprehension in every direction.  This sense of fear mixed with elation, this terrible joy is what Owen means by “humble adoration.”  As we study the Trinity we step off the beach and sail beyond the horizon, into blue water.  What we find when we arrive is that to truly understand God is to understand that he is beyond our comprehension and the only thing we could rightly do is humbly adore.  That is how we know we’ve understood the Trinity correctly.

So with than in mind let’s explore a few things together.  We will explore:

  1. What the language of Scripture says about God in general
  2. How the language of Scripture forces us to reconceive how we think about monotheism (one God).
  3. How some have wrongly tried to make sense of these scriptures and how their error is to our detriment.
  4. How one can rightly make sense of these scriptures and how it is to our benefit.

In a brief discussion such as this we certainly cannot cover everything there would be to cover.  After all, people have written whole books (or several whole books!) on this subject.  But, it is my hope that we can at least get oriented around the right ideas.

 Who is God?

In his famous Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas identifies five different ways that you can describe “God” in the most general sense.  They are as follows:

  1. God is the“unmoved mover” Everything that is moved is moved by another.  Therefore, there must exist an “unmoved mover.”  God is the unmoved mover.
  2. God is the “First Cause.” The sequence of causes that make up our universe must have had a first efficient cause to set them off.  God is the first efficient cause.
  3. God is a Necessary Being.  All life is dependent upon something greater than itself for being.  For example, a child is dependent upon a mother and a father.  A vine is dependent upon a branch.  Therefore, there must be something from which everything is ultimately dependent upon.  This is God. 
  4. God is the “Perfect Good” Good exists in life.  Some things are better than others, but none is “perfectly good.”  There must be something (or someone!) that is purely and perfectly good.  This “perfect good” is God.
  5. God is the one who brings order to the universe.  We do live in an ordered universe, therefore there must be a person who has given the universe we live in order.  This person is God.

 When people use the word “God,” even non-Christians, I think you’ll find in the West that they are typically using the word in a way that’s consistent with at least one of the five ways listed above.  And of course, the Bible certainly affirms the general principles listed above. 

For example the Bible clearly identifies God as the “unmoved mover,” or the “first  cause” in the act of creation.  So too, the Bible proclaims God to be the perfect expression (Way #4) of many of the experiences we have here on earth.  For example, consider the following text from Matthew’s Gospel:

 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11 ESV)

 There is an expression of fatherhood that each of us is aware of since we all had fathers. Now some fathers are better than others, but there is only one perfect father.  The perfect father is of course God, as the only perfectly good expression of fatherhood that exists (Way #4).

Finally, the Bible affirms that God is the one who brings order to the universe (Way #5).  Strikingly, this is frequently seen regarding our own salvation.  For example, note the following passage where Paul discusses God’s ordering of the disordered aspects of creation, i.e. sin, suffering, evil, death etc.  He writes:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.(Romans 8:28 ESV)

 Generally speaking there are even more things that we can say about God than what was listed above by Aquinas.  For example, the Bible teaches us that God is omnipotent (Job 9.4 Psa 24.8, Matt 11.25, 1 Tim 6.15).  The Bible affirms God as sovereign over all (Psalm 104, Mark 4.39, Dan 1.2), omnipresent (Psalm 139 is a key text for this attribute), and immutable, that is unchangeable (Heb 13.8,  James 1.17).   A wonderful hymn that aptly expresses the attributes of God W.C. Smiths’ hymn, the first stanza of which reads:

 Immortal, invisible, God only wise,

in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,

most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,

almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise. 

More could be said about these attributes, but this is sufficient for what both the Bible and often times the world itself wishes to affirm about the nature of God.

 The Problem of Jesus

The attributes listed above are fairly uncontroversial in the larger world of monotheism.  I’m not entirely convinced that anything that has been said about God previously in this little post would be difficult for a Muslim, Jew or even an agnostic to accept. 

Where Christianity differentiates itself from all other major monotheistic religions is in the person of Jesus Christ.  You may have read “Jesus is the answer,” scrawled on the wall or on a bumper sticker.  And indeed, he is the answer to many things but when we speak of God, Jesus actually poses several problems to our understanding of God.  This was after all the reason Jesus was put to death.  He wasn’t crucified for being a nice guy! 

Jesus is a Jewish man who comes from a long, deep, and wide Jewish tradition. Within this tradition it was understood that there was only one God, which was quite different from the multiplicity of pagan gods in the Canaanite, Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, and later Roman religions.  Moses writes in Deuteronomy:

“Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one (Deut 6.4 ESV, emphasis mine)


Jesus believed and would no doubt have confessed the above statement in synagogue, but he nevertheless says some very problematic things concerning himself that force us to rethink the statement that “the Lord is one.” 

For example, Jesus claimed to have the authority to forgive sins.  The importance of the claim is not lost on C.S. Lewis, who notes:

Then comes the real shock…there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God.  He claims to forgive sins.  He says He has always existed.  He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time…One part of the claim that tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to.  I mean the claim to forgive sins:  any sins.  Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic.  We can all understand how a man forgives offence against himself.  You tread on my toes and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you.  But what should we make of a man, himself unrobed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on the other man’s toes and stealing other men’s money?–      Lewis, Mere Christianity

Indeed!  What are we to make of this man?  Of course the whole problem would have gone away had Jesus had the courtesy to stay dead after his crucifixion, but having been raised from the dead he forces us to come to terms with him and the claims he made about himself.  What are we to do with this man, who as Lewis says, went about “talking as if He was God”?

Modalism and Tri-Theism:  Two Wrong Solutions to the “Jesus Problem”

One attempt to make sense of Jesus, his claims and resurrection is called modalism.  Modalism suggests that God is one, however he reveals himself to us in different modes or in successive manifestations.  Perhaps you’ve had an employer who also happened to be your friend.  You talk business for a moment and he has his “boss hat” on, but the subject changes and all of a sudden he says “I’m putting my friend hat on.”  You are speaking to the same person, but he is behaving towards you in different ways.

So modalism says that at times God puts on his “father hat”, at other times he puts on his “son hat,” and at other times he put son his “Spirit hat.”  A crass way to articulate this would be to say that in the Old Testament God was an angry father, but in the inter-testamental period he got some counseling and is much better adjusted.  So he now acts towards us with grace and mercy acting in the mode of a “son.”

So what’s the big deal about modalism?  Well, first it doesn’t make sense of some of the complex statements that we have regarding Jesus revealed in the Bible. Consider the following:

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.        (John 1:18-19 ESV)


The above quote does not imply one person behaving in different ways.  But rather at least two persons, one person being the Father and the other being at the Father’s side.  No simple theory of multiple masks can do justice to what’s happening in the above quote from John’s Gospel.  Second, to suggest that God is one but just puts on different “masks” or acts in different “modes” is to introduce a whole host of difficult problems. 

For example, if God is simply one person, even if he acts in three ways, then God cannot possibly be love.  Often when I speak to non-Christians, one thing that they will almost always affirm about God is that he is love.  But if God is only one person then he couldn’t possibly be such a thing.  Why?  If God is only one person then before creation he has nothing to love but himself.  This is not quite what people have in mind when they say “God is love.”  In order to become a loving God, he would then need to create something to love.  Love would then be a learned trait, not an essential quality, therefore God could never be love.

 The other problem with modalism is this:  if God is one person who wears many masks, how can we ever know when he’s not wearing a mask?  In other words, how can we ever know God is being honest with us?  Perhaps you’ve enjoyed, as I have, the AMC television series Mad Men or Breaking Bad.  Each series revolves around a man who wears many masks.  The man is one way towards his family, another at his office, and another while he is engaged in illicit activity (Draper’s affairs or “Heizenberg’s” drug dealing).  One of the points made by both shows is that you can’t trust a man who wears masks.  Neither could you trust a God who does so.

 Modalism is not simply a heresy of the past to be read about in dusty history books, but it is alive and well and can be purchased at Barnes and Nobles!  One such example is T.D. Jakes, a bishop and lead pastor of the Potter’s House Church.  The statement of faith on the Potter’s House website confesses God as “one God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in three manifestations: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”  But as we have shown above, the language of three “manifestations” or modes is problematic.  This may seem nitpicky in an age with no stomach for strong doctrinal convictions, but as the former Bishop of South Carolina Fitz Allison has so often reminded us, heresy is cruel.  A modalistic God, who is always hiding behind different masks and manifestations can never be truly known or trusted.  A God who can never truly be known can never be truly loved, and perhaps can never truly love either.

 So much for modalism.  What about tri-theism?  This is the second failed approach to comprehend the difficulty presented by the claims of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection.  This solution says we cannot understand the complexity of Jesus’ claims and resurrection and remain monotheists (one-God).  So the solution is to rid ourselves of the “oneness” of God and posit three Gods.  Rather than the Trinitarian position, which we will discuss in a moment, which says that there are three persons in one God, tri-theism posits three persons existing in three Gods.

 Why is this problematic?  Well, one only needs to do a brief overview of Greek mythology to understand the problems of multiple deities.  Multiple deities can turn on one another, overthrow one another, make secret pacts, etc.  Because deities can turn on one another, ancient pagan mythology posits a fundamentally unstable universe, where life and order are in constant jeopardy of being overthrown.   Thus tri-theism is to be rejected not merely on Biblical grounds, but upon philosophical objections as well.

Trinitarianism:  The Right Way to Understand Jesus

Historically the Christian Church has said that the right way to understand the problem that Jesus poses to a monotheistic conception of God is to confess that there is truly one God, however this God exists in three distinct persons.  The evidence is certainly there biblically to form such a conception.  For example, consider the following:

 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him;  and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16- 17 ESV, emphasis mine)

 The above quote from Matthew has a voice declaring from heaven “This is my beloved Son.”  We have a man named Jesus, who is the beloved Son.  And finally a Spirit of God that descends from above and rests on Jesus.  This is a full picture of the work of the Trinity in Jesus Christ. 

Or perhaps consider this from the account of Stephen’s martyrdom in the Acts of the Apostles:

But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”(Acts 7:55-56 ESV, emphasis mine)

What was the “glory of God” that Stephen saw?  First, the glory of God was seen through the power of the Spirit.  Second, what was seen specifically were two persons standing next to one another, just as we read in John 1.18-19 earlier.

Though the evidence was there Biblically, it was not until the third century that Tertullian, a Latin theologian, attempted to describe this profound mystery with the word “trinitas.”  Tertullian sought to navigate this mystery by saying that the essence, or substance of God is indeed one.  If you’ll remember back to when we discussed the question of “who is God,” and certain things were said about Him.  For example, we said God was the first cause.  We also discussed some attributes of God such as his immensity, omnipotence, incomprehensibility etc.  Tertullian said there is only one being with these qualities.  However, within this one being exists three persons.  He writes:

All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. –Tertullian, Adversus Praxeam

The doctrine was not settled until the council of Nicaea, held in 325 A.D. Here, the gathered church agreed on the following confession to articulate the complex mystery of the Holy Trinity.  They wrote:

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

of all that is, seen and unseen. 


We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God, 

eternally begotten of the Father, 

God from God, Light from Light, 
true God from true God, 

begotten, not made, 
of one Being with the Father. 

Through him all things were made. 

For us and for our salvation 

he came down from heaven: 

by the power of the Holy Spirit 
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, 
and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; 

he suffered death and was buried. 

On the third day he rose again

in accordance with the Scriptures; 

he ascended into heaven 

and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, 
and his kingdom will have no end. 


We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, 
who proceeds from the Father and the Son. 

With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. 

He has spoken through the Prophets. 

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. 

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. 

We look for the resurrection of the dead, 

and the life of the world to come. Amen. 


Note a few things about the confession.  First, notice how each member of the Trinity is credited with essential divine attributes.  For example, the Father is the “maker of heaven and earth,” the Son is “not made, of one being with the Father,” and the Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life.”  Thus we have one divine being.  Second, notice how though we have one divine being, the creed nevertheless carefully distinguishes three persons within the divine being.  For example, the Father alone begets.  The Son alone was “for our sake crucified.”  Finally, the Spirit alone “has spoken through the prophets” and the Spirit alone “proceeds from the Father and the Son” (the procession from the Father and the Son is not without controversy.  I have little time to go into it here.  You can click here for a different article that covers it well).  Thus there is an essentially unity, in that all share in the divine nature.  Nevertheless, three persons can be distinguished within the divinity based upon their distinct activities.

This is undoubtedly confusing and hard to grasp.  How can three persons constitute one being?  Again, Lewis comes to our aid.  Read the following carefully:

On the human level one person is one being, and any two person are two separate beings- just as, in two dimensions (say on a flat sheet of paper) one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures.  On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine.  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.

–       Lewis, Mere Christianity

In other words, in Lewis’ analogy we find it hard to conceive of how God could be three persons in one divine being because we’re one-dimensional and he is three-dimensional.  He exists on a different plane altogether. 

At some point we must admit the mind will fail to grasp the mystery of the three persons, eternally existing as one divine being.  This does not make our discussion meaningless, but rather serves to increase our awareness in the overall majesty and glory of God.  As Gregory of Nazianzus once wrote:

 I cannot think of the unity without being irradiated by the Trinity: I cannot distinguish between the Trinity without being carried up to the unity.

This doctrine, as complex as it is, nevertheless serves to “irradiate” and carry along in adoration.  If that is all we succeed at, we will have more than a humble victory.

 Who Cares?

As I’m fond of reminding you: 

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. – Calvin, Inst I.i.1

The knowledge of ourselves is after all, intimately bound up in our knowledge of God because we are made in his image (Gen 1.27).  There are certain aspects of being human, for example the human desire to love and be loved, the human compulsion to be creative, and the need to be in relationship that are explained only through a God who exists in Trinity.

The Trinity gives us an accounting of love

Take first the human desire to love and be loved.  As John reminds us, “God is love” (1 John 4.8).  God eternally exists as a Father who loves a Son, a Son who loves a Father, and a Spirit who eternally binds the two in affection.  Thus God exists to both give and receive love and he is capable of doing this entirely on his own.  That is God can be love according to his own divine being amongst three persons.  This led Jonathan Edwards to describe God as “infinitely happy in the enjoyment of himself” (Edwards, An Unpublished Essay on the Trinity).  Furthermore, this very same God made us in his image.  We too, like God, exist to receive and return love.  Augustine understood this well when he wrote:

You have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our souls are restless until they find their rest in you. –Augustine, Confessions

We as creature are compelled to rest in giving and receiving love from the divine persons of the Trinity precisely because we are made in the image of God.  This too is the foundation behind all human relationships.

The Trinity gives us an accounting of human creativity

Finally, take the human compulsion to be creative.  Both love and relationships can be understood as a biological necessity.  But the human compulsion to create art, fiction, literature, etc. defies the logic of biological necessity.  It is not after all, a biological necessity for J.D. Salinger to write The Catcher in the Rye or for Frank Lloyd Wright to design Fallingwater.  So why do humans feel compelled to create?  The answer is that creation is imbedded in the very nature of who God is.  In John’s Gospel, the Word is described as God’s “only-begotten.”  Charles Spurgeon rightly notes that this implies “the begetting of the Logos (the Word) was not an event in time but an eternal relationship.”  In other words, the Father eternally begat the Son.  On the nature of this “eternally begotten” nature of the Son David Bell writes:

 Eternal generation means that when the Father put forth or produced or generated the Son, he did not do so in the same way as a woman brings forth a baby, or a bullet comes out of a gun. In both these cases, the action is a single action, done once and for all. But when a candle shines and gives forth its light, the light is emitted continually so long as the flame is burning. It is a continual act, not a single action, and it is in this way that God the Son is begotten. God the Father continually pours forth God the Son…From the beginning of eternity to its end, God the Father generates the Son as light forever generates its own radiance…Light without radiance is unthinkable…and more than that, light and its radiance show a community of substance. In other words we have here light from light . . ., not trees from light or heat from light or horses from light; but as a river puts forth a stream (water from water) or the rational mind puts forth its will (mind from mind), what is put forth here is the same ‘stuff’ or ‘material’ or ‘substance’ as that which puts it forth. –David Bell, A Cloud of Witnesses

If God the Father “continually pours forth God the Son,” in the same way that a candle continually pours forth light, then creation, just like love, is at the very center of who God is.  Made in God’s image, both love and a creative impulse are at the center of a human being. 

Christianity then, particularly in its worship of the Triune God, has a theological reason to celebrate human relationships, human giving and receiving of love, as well as human creativity.  In each and every one of these activities human beings testify to their “likeness” unto God and furthermore, in each and every one of these activities, from friendship (love) to architecture (creativity), Christians can (and should!) enjoy and worship God. 



One response

7 10 2012
Karen Durand

Rob, Here is a question in response to the lesson on Tuesday night. We are to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. That is too abstract for me. It’s sort of like ‘Pray without ceasing,” a good thought but not practical as understood. Can you put some meat on the bones, flesh out the idea of enjoying God? You mentioned a bottle of good wine, but I assume you mean on occasion. Go on. Thanks Karen Durand

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