Explaining the Trinity without Getting into Trouble

January 7, 2013

We are taking a look at The Fellowship Theology Project‘s explanation of the essential tenets of the Reformed faith. You can get a copy of the report developed for The Fellowship of Presbyterians and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians here. A study guide by Stephen Eyre (Cincinnati, OH) and me has been completed and will be available soon, so watch that website for its release.

The last tenet highlighted the fact that while we take the Bible in its various parts as the authoritative Word of God, we also take the Scriptures in their entirety very seriously. This turns out to be very significant, because the doctrine of the Trinity sneaks up on you as you read the Bible. The word “trinity” is never used in either the Old or New Testament, and yet the proclamation of God, three-in-one and one-in-three, unfolds in “the whole counsel of God.”

Experientially, God as one is prominent in the Old Testament, but there are frequent references to God’s Spirit throughout. When Jesus enters the scene, fully God and fully human (the subject of the next tenet, the Incarnation), his claims to deity urgently raise the question of God’s nature. Once he was resurrected from the dead, the question was begged: “Who is this man?” The inevitable conclusion, first preached by Peter on Pentecost (Acts 2) and later by Paul (in Acts 12), is that Jesus was/is God and reigns forever at God’s right hand. And they knew this because the Holy Spirit indwelt them and empowered them to give witness about Jesus.

But now try to explain the Trinity: Sometimes the Church has found it more helpful to articulate what the Trinity does not mean, than to get long-winded about what it does mean. But no matter how many options we eliminate or embrace, in the end we are always going to feel inadequate to describe and explain its reality and how this association of Father, Son, and Spirit works. In the end, we may come to the conclusion that while the project of articulating the doctrine of the Trinity is ongoing, one can experience the Trinity and enjoy a well-rounded relationship with God in the meantime.

Some of my Boomer readers may remember the experience of Nicky Cruz, whose conversion to Christ was documented in the book The Cross and the Switchblade (by David Wilkerson) and his own testimony in Run, Baby, Run. What is interesting for our purposes is that subsequent to his dramatic conversion from street gang life, he also encountered the reality of the Trinity in a powerful way and told that story in The Magnificent Three. Early on, his encounter with Jesus Christ was life-transforming: “I came to Jesus because I knew He loved me, and still didn’t know anything about God.” But a few years later, something happened: “Something has emerged in my walk with God that has become the most important element of my discipleship. It has become the thing that sustains me, that feeds me, that keeps me steady when I am shaky. I have come to see God, to know Him, to relate to Him as Three-in-One, God as Trinity, God as Father, Savior, and Holy Spirit. God has given to me over the years a vision of Himself as Three-in-One, and the ability to relate to God in that way is the single most important fact of my Christian growth.”

Christians for millennia have been trying to get a handle on the concept of the Trinity through various analogies: St. Patrick’s shamrock; ice-water-steam as three states of water; or C. S. Lewis’ cube (God is Three just as a cube is six square sides). These, and other, analogies ultimately fail or break down into doctrinal heresies the Church has long rejected. We are humbled by the quest to describe the Trinity without getting into similar trouble. Contemporary analogies have tried to address these shortcomings, by reclaiming some historically rooted ideas:

The social analogy: Father, Son, and Spirit are a dynamic relationship creating a unit, a family. This view was held by some of the early Eastern church fathers, such as Basil of Caesarea and popularized in the best-seller The Shack (by William P. Young).

The psychological analogy: Father, Son, and Spirit are three personalities in one Person, the virtuous parallel to  “multiple personality disorder.” This view was first advanced by Augustine in the fourth century.

But here’s a creative one, the “statue-lump” analogy: Consider Rodin’s famous bronze statue, The Thinker. It is a single material object; but it is both a statue and a lump of bronze. The statue is distinct from the lump of bronze. For example, if the statue were melted down, we would no longer have both a lump and a statue: the lump would remain (in a different shape) but Rodin’s Thinker would no longer exist. The lump is something distinct from the statue, but they are the same material object. So now suppose, as Aquinas and Aristotle did, that God’s Three Persons share the same “matter” (divine nature) but possess distinct “form-matter compounds.” This analogy is limited only by the crucial reminder that God is not material. But perhaps you can get the idea.[1]

Our attempts at analogy are feeble and limited, but this does not take away from the significance of God—three-in-one and one-in-three—as an essential of the Christian faith. The Trinity is true, it is important for faith and life, and we’re always going to feel inadequate to describe and explain its reality. Which means, practically speaking, that God remains bigger than we are and can only be fully known from within his own being. But next time, we will explore how God made himself known to us by means of the Incarnation, the revelation of God to humankind that is enough to draw us into relationship with him.



[1] Jeffrey E. Brower and Michael C. Rea, “Understanding the Trinity,” accessed online. See Philosophical and Theological Essays on the Trinity, ed. by Thomas McColl and Michael Rea (Oxford, 2010).


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