For quite some time, I have wanted to write at length concerning a subject dear to my heart. I’ve been drawn into several discussions with Muslims, Christians and seekers that touch on the ultimate reality of God, what is He like, and why does it matter. A couple of these conversations are here, and here. Of course, it is meaningless to say that “I worship God” if I neither know nor care who He is or what He is like. It would be like saying “I love my wife” without knowing, or caring to know, anything about her.
I am referring of course to that absolutely bedrock assertion of Christians that God is triune, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. In its fullness, it is maddeningly beyond our grasp, and yet if true, it represents the core and source of all that is, seen and unseen. It is in affirmation of the Trinity that we can say “Jesus is Lord” and by it we are rejected as blasphemers by both Jew and Muslim. The Trinity is nowhere explicitly and unreservedly defined in scripture, although there is strong support. Instead, the understanding of Trinity arises as a consequence of Holy Scripture, that given what we are told about God, this must be true.
As we go along, I very much welcome your contribution to the discussion, and your thoughts about the issue, for or against. As will soon become apparent, I am no scholar or trained theologian, but thinking about truth is the exclusive right of neither.
SO WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “THE HOLY TRINITY” AND WHY SHOULD WE BELIEVE IT?
We see God as existing eternally, before the dawn of time. I believe this means before the creation of time, holding, to the limits of my understanding, that time is of a unity – a ‘forth dimension’ with space in describing the material universe. If time and space were not created by God, they would be either the limitless expanse co-existent with the limitless God, which devolves to pantheism (Many have taken some form of that pantheism road, but the rejection of that is outside the scope of this article.), or they would be the environment in which God dwells and operates.
Time and space would be preconditions upon God, and thus a deeper and more ancient reality. The true “ground of being” would be moved back from who we call “God” onto another agency, be that agency personal or impersonal. This perhaps mindless entity, the cosmos itself, would be the self-existent ultimate reality; by definition, it would be the true God. The Deity we acknowledge would only be a subordinate, or a manifestation. Of course, the current understanding of physics, although ever subject to refinement and change, suggests that time and space (not merely matter, but space itself) had a definite point of origin in the “big bang”, that time has a definite direction, and will be of a fixed length.
No, God must exist outside of time and space. That is a small part of what I understand by “Transcendent.” God, of His nature, does not inhabit the universe in the way that we do. It would be at least as accurate, probably more so, to say that the universe, all of time and space, inhabits Him, without filling Him.
It is very hard to even talk of such an existence without smuggling in the idea of time. I have to slap my fingers to keep from writing “before” time; which is meaningless, because “before” is a question of sequence, of time. My chosen substitute, “outside” is not any better, because “outside” is a question of space and location. I suppose the closest I could come would be to speak of God existing “outside of time, and before space.” We are such total creatures of time and space that we are powerless to envision of an existence without them, even when we know it must be so. The only way we can proceed is to invent words like “transcendence” to describe the indescribable reality.
OK, what does all this have to do with the Trinity?
I think that there are very good reasons for understanding the source of all things, the uncreated “ground of being” as in some fashion corporate. I am going to set those reasons aside to simmer for a bit, not because they are secondary, but because I do not want to encourage the idea that I am arguing for any form whatsoever of polytheism. That is anathema both by Holy Scripture and by reason. Instead, I want to come from the wrong way ‘round, and think of what such a corporate existence would be like if it is in fact true, then come back to why I think it so.
GOD IS ONE
If we envision more than one “existences” we immediately envision a medium in which they exist. There must be such a medium so that we can say ‘this’ is Zeus, and ‘this’ is Hermes. If they are not all the same, there must be some way for a boundary to exist, some way to differentiate one from another. As I see it, this is the most straight-forward evidence against polytheism. Any society of polytheistic gods must of necessity be derivative to whatever is the true self-existent ground of being, that being the environment in which they all exist. Gods under pantheism become little more than people with different forms of bodies and different powers. A being formed of light energy instead of carbon molecules would still be a creature, no less than we are.
No, this won’t do at all. If there is to be some form of society within the Godhead, it must be as the Trinitarian formula puts it: One God, eternally existing in three (or for this point in my argument, more than one) persons, with the essence of God not divided, and the Persons not confused. God must be One. By reason as well as revelation, God is one. If there is, as I believe, some sort of plural-ness to the uncreated creator, it must be of a sort that does not contradict His unity.
A SIDE NOTE ABOUT TENSION BETWEEN INCOMPATABLE IDEAS
I am treading very carefully here, because the two ideas incorporated within the doctrine of the Trinity are seemingly mutually exclusive. God is One. God is Three. Well, which is it! Declare what you really believe, it can’t be both! In my discussions with those from Islam, that seems to be exactly the take. I can’t truly believe what I say I believe. We Trinitarians must actually be polytheists who lack the honesty to say what we really think.
There is a huge tension between the two propositions, arising from the limits of our vision. But I take it that when two seemingly incompatible ideas both must be true, then they probably are both true; the incompatibility lies within my understanding. Those tensions are often the repository of a truth deeper than what we can now see, and by refusing that tension, we may well miss the most important truth, as well as losing the smaller point.
For instance, if I draw a picture something like this / \ and proclaim that these lines are parallel, you may well conclude that I am either a very bad draftsman, or that I have no idea of what “parallel” means, that I am a liar or a fool. If you are blindingly sympathetic and think me preternaturally wise, you may even think that your own understanding of parallel (and that of all mathematical history) is faulty, since I must by right.
All of these approaches are attempts to reduce the tension between the shape drawn, / \, and my assertion that the lines are parallel. The deeper truth which resolves the tension is that reality, which my drawing represents, exists in 3 dimensions, not just the 2 on the paper. The parallel lines are receding into that third dimension like railroad tracks into the distance. If we existed in only two dimensions, and had no way to understand three, we may be totally unable to resolve that tension. But both the drawing and the idea of parallel would both still be true, as well as my status as an accurate interpreter of the drawing. By insisting on a resolution, we would have to deny the truth of something that is in fact true.
GOD IS PLURAL IN HIS ONE-NESS
Having established that God is (and must be) One and only One, and that tension often points to truth, I am going to turn with trepidation to the issue of plurality within that unity. In what follows, it is most important to remember that first point, the first point both in reason and the Law, that “the Lord your God is One.” I am going to base my argument for plurality on another of the classical attributes of God: that He is complete within Himself, without need or want, and acts in accordance with his Nature without compulsion of any kind. There are other basis, both within and external to the Holy Scriptures, but for now, this will suffice.
We have called God the “ground of being” meaning that He is the antecedent of all things, having Himself no antecedent. Or, as the Gospel of John puts it “All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made”; in Genesis, “In the beginning, God created…” In that beginning, God already existed (smuggling that idea of sequence, and thus time again!), not needing to be created, and Himself creating all things.
Why did God create? What did He, who wants for nothing, want? What did He who is perfect and complete, without need, need to do or have? What did He who is without passions desire? Why did He create?
A traditional and Biblical answer is that God created out of Love, that God is Love. All well and good, and correct. Let’s follow that a bit, and see where it leads. Was God love before creation, when He was the only entity in existence? If so, then love would have to be defined differently than I understand it. Can love exist in a unipolar fashion, like a magnet with only one pole? I would suspect that this ‘theoretical’ understanding of disembodied love is pretty far from the real thing. I would suspect that love requires both a lover and a beloved to be actual. One of my own ideas about God is that He is never ‘theoretical.’ All is actual, all is real. He is the “I AM” never the “I COULD BE” He is not “potential love” longing for an object onto which He could pour His love. His act of creation could not come from need for something to love.
If we allow for the existence of plurality within the unity of the Godhead, though, these difficulties vanish. God becomes an eternal state of love, between (in the Trinitarian formula) Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and creation comes not from need, but from overflow of love. A crude simile would be the difference between a young single woman desperate to have a baby so that she would have someone to love (and love her), and a couple whose love for each other overflows in fullness to create a child. Crude, but I think not inappropriate.
The act of creation by a God who needs nothing can only be explained by the existence of actual love; and this requires the existence of multiple persons. though in such a way as to not violate the unity of God.
WHY THREE, AND NOT ANY NUMBER OF PERSONS?
Having established that God is One, and that He must be plural within that one-ness, a “plural-unity”, Why do we say Three-in-One, and not Four or Seventeen or an infinite host?
When we think of Father and Son, it is almost inevitable that we think in terms of our human fathers, who may have multiple children, or of the Father of a nomadic clan. This is the image which looks like polytheism and causes such a scandal in the Islamic eyes. But I don’t think that is quite what is meant.
The second person of the Trinity, the Son, has also been referred to as the Word, or the Logos. The fullness of that is deeper than I can plumb. What I get is that in the Son, we see the expression of the Transcendent God. That which I “beget” is of the same kind of thing that I am, it is in some sense, even in a biological sense, “me” going forth. When I write, or send out my words or my ideas, that is again “me” going forth.
It we imagine two sons, then neither can be the LOGOS, nor can they be co-equal with the Father. Rather, they would be co-equal with each other, and lower than the Father. This would seem to break the triune nature of the one Godhead into a polytheistic hierarchy. Or if the idea of LOGOS is maintained as from John 1, each would be only a partial expression of God, one appropriate for this, and another for that. I would take that as pretty pure modalism, which the church defined early on as heretical.
I believe the classic articulations of the Trinity go much deeper than this, but I think this beginners version is on the same page, and I’ll stand on it until I can see further.
If Jesus Christ as the begotten Son of the Father is the complete expression of God fullness, how can there be another expression, except as a repetition? Remember, our language is metaphorical and symbolic (it is our language that is symbolic, not the truth behind the language) God the father is not a Nomadic chieftain such as Abraham. When He has expressed himself perfectly, fully and completely, He has no other expression to give. There can be only one begotten Son.
In a similar fashion, there can be only one Holy Spirit of God. If in God the Father we understand the Transcendence of God, and in God the Son we understand His expression, so in the Holy Spirit we understand His imminence. The Spirit is that by which we understand God to dwell within God’s people by His gift. If I understand the western idea correctly, the Spirit eternally arises as a product of the relationship between the Father and the Son. In pharmaceuticals, whenever I take two medications, I have at least three chemicals in my body: medicine A, medicine B, and the compound AB produced by the interaction of the two. Any time two entities exist, there also exists a product of their interaction, as magnets and the magnetic field between them. I find this to be a very limited picture, but it makes sense to me as a direction in which the truth lies, not as the full truth itself. But if it is in the right direction, the Father and the Son have one relationship between them, one Spirit which is the embodiment of that relationship. There cannot be another.
These are very crude images of the one triune God, and are subject to much refining and correction; much needs to be said to amend the flaws in them. But even in these images, the Trinity is of necessity 3, and only 3, in 1. Any extension would seem to overturn the whole idea into polytheism, and loose the idea of the One God.
In all the preceding thought, I have started from the definition of God as the one who creates and is Himself uncreated (the “Ground of Being” or “Prime Cause”) and that He is complete within Himself, having neither need nor want, under no compulsion except to be who He is. From these definitions I have attempted to show that He is, of necessity, One, and that as seemingly contradictory as it may be, that He is inescapably plural; that the seeming contradiction arises not from these two premises, but from the limitations of our understanding, and that our limited capacity to understand should not be made more comfortable by denying either of otherwise true propositions. If you are still with me, you may reasonably ask
“Who cares? Whether all this is right or not, it makes my head hurt. And besides, what difference does it really make?”
One of my favorite books is called “The Cruelty of Heresy” written by a retired Episcopal bishop named C. FitzSimons Allison. Through reading Bp Allison’s book, I became convinced that the truths about God are important, not just because they are true, but also because they reflect the ultimate realities about this world. These realities are not just interesting thoughts, but they are the guiding principles which should inform our lives. Indeed, if a doctrine has nothing to say about how we should live in the light of its truth, I am somewhat uneasy as to whether it is true at all.
This, by the way is another of the marks by which I try to understand what ideas are true, and which are simply attractive:
When I insert a particular idea into the story, does it just sit there by itself, or does it illumine the rest of the story?
And I believe the idea of the Holy Trinity passes that test.
All through the scripture we get this idea, which seems very strange to my modern western ears, that there is some sort of unity beyond our individual identity. There is a recurring theme that tribal/familial/national/racial identity actually does matter, that we are somehow tied together. In the New Testament, we are spoken of as corporately one body. We are not just individuals, and it would be a grave mistake to think that we can “separate the essence” of who we are as a whole in order to insist on our standing as unique individuals. And yet at the same time, each of us has a choice to make. We must make it ourselves, as Rahab did at Jericho. Our fate is bound together with that of our brothers, and at the same time, our fate depends on our own choices. It is an equally grave mistake to “confuse the persons” and violate our unique identity by rolling it into the mass of humanity. How can both be true? I think it is a slight whisper, a signature mark of our Maker, you might say a characteristic shape that identifies His work, that things can be somewhat unique and plural at the same time.
I’ve often wrestled with St. Paul’s statements in Romans about our being “in” Adam, or “in” Christ. I accepted it, but without understanding. How could the sin and rebellion of one, or the perfect obedience and sacrifice of the other actually affect me, other than by example? The answer seems to be in that somewhat mystical idea that Charles Williams called “co inherence” which is a thumbprint of the plural-unity of the Holy Trinity.
In my first marriage, before it was redeemed as my second marriage, I did not understand much of what it meant to be “one flesh” and yet two distinct persons. And yet this presents the exact same errors as when contemplating the Trinity. We think (and this was my main error)“we must be one” and so sacrifice either or both individuals into he one-ness. We “confuse the persons.”
Or we may support the existence of two individuals by denying any essential unity, and loose what God has for us in marriage. We “separate the essence.” If the Holy Trinity is one, yet composed of three persons in that unity, held together not by compulsion but by mutual love, and in a that submission does not equal subservience or inferiority, then how should we live so as to echo that back?
How should we in the church live out our Lord’s prayer “that they all should be one, even as we are One”?
I believe that, as like creates like, the plural unity that is the God of all creation is intending to create something of the same sort with us. In the fullness of the kingdom, the eastern religions are half right: we will all be one, but not as a drop of water becomes one with the ocean and looses itself. We will become one in the way patterned after the way that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one; in a way that glorifies our unique individuality while exulting in the kind of intimate unity that now only occurs, sometimes, in the best of marriages.
The classic doctrine of the Holy Trinity, that God is One, while comprised of three Persons, a “plural unity,” is supported by reason arising from the definition of God as the “ground of being,” that God is love, never in the abstract but always in the real, and that God is without need or compulsion. Any form of polytheism is rejected as being a truncated theology, with any individual supposed ‘gods’ merely derivative. Given these characteristics, creation could only flow from a plural unity. This plural unity is further seen to consist, necessarily, of three and only three persons. It is acknowledged that the tension between one and three is vast, but that the tension arises from our limitations, not from the statements about God.
The Trinity is further upheld as true based on the illumination it sheds on human relationships, on ‘original sin’ and redemption, and its pastoral role in speaking to both marriage and life within the church.
The challenge presented, as always, is to look to God the Son, Jesus, to see Him, and to see God the Father through Him; to do what He does as an apprentice copies his master; then under our submission to God the Holy Spirit, become who He is making us to be.