The doctrine of the Trinity is perhaps the most difficult of all Christian beliefs. It’s hard to understand how God can be one, and yet three; it’s hard to define what we mean when we say that; it’s even hard to figure out what words we can use when we talk about this. The traditional formulation is that God is three persons in one being, but that has its problems; one of my seminary professors, J. I. Packer, insisted that we really couldn’t say anthing more than that God is three things in one thing, but there’s a problem with that, too—things are impersonal, and God is clearly personal.
So it’s hard to wrap our minds around this, as you can see from all the different illustrations people use. St. Patrick taught the Irish about the Trinity by holding up a shamrock, with its three leaves; others hold up the egg, which consists of yolk, white, and shell; my Nana preferred to talk about how each of us has multiple roles, so that for instance I am a son to my parents, a husband to my wife, and a father to my children. All of these are inadequate, though; in fact, some of them, if we really thought about them seriously, would lead us far astray from the biblical witness.
Actually, though I don’t trust attempts to illustrate the Trinity, the best one I’ve ever run across is the structure of our federal government. That may sound strange to say, but I’ve actually read folks who argue that trinitarian theology was in the back of the Founders’ minds (some of them, anyway) when they designed it. I don’t know about the history there—it’s an interesting idea, but I haven’t seen any primary sources that support it—but as an analogy, it has its points. There is a certain hierarchy and structure to our branches of government, but none of them are dominant; each does different things; and the relationship between them constitutes our government and makes things happen. Thus, for instance, laws are passed by the legislative branch, executed and administered by the executive branch, and enforced by the judicial branch.
Of course, God is unlimited and perfect, while our government is limited and imperfect (though it occasionally forgets the fact) because it’s composed of limited and imperfect people, but there are some real parallels there that are worth considering. One could even argue that the fact that our government is designed to function in a way analogous to the divine Trinity might have something to do with why this “noble experiment,” as Abraham Lincoln called it, has turned out so well. I would never use politics to prove theology, but it’s an interesting thing to think about.
Of course, this analogy also has its dangers—including the temptation to snipe about the tendency of government to think it’s God—but it also has this advantage, that it points us to the reason why the doctrine of the Trinity matters. It’s easy to think that it really doesn’t, because it seems so abstruse and arcane and removed from real life; it’s easy to figure that this is just a case of people with more brains than sense and too much time on their hands cooking up the most complicated thing they could think of. In truth, though, this is anything but. Granted that the Bible never uses the word “Trinity” and that there is no one passage that teaches it, this is nevertheless a doctrine that is biblically necessary and profoundly important to our understanding of God.
First, it’s biblically necessary because it’s the only way to reconcile all the biblical statements about God. Obviously, God is one and there is only one God—Deuteronomy 6 makes that clear—and God the Father is God. But Jesus Christ also claimed to be God, in many ways. John 5:18: “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because . . . he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” John quotes him multiple times as calling himself the Son of God, and identifies him in the opening of his gospel as God, but distinct from the Father. Later on in John 5, Jesus identifies himself as the one who will call the dead to rise at the end of time and carry out the final judgment. Luke 5, the healing of the paralytic, Jesus forgives the man’s sins and we see the reaction of the Pharisees: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” John 10:30, he declares, “I and the Father are one”; John 8:58, he tells the Jewish leaders, “Before Abraham was, I AM”—claiming the unspoken name of God as his own rightful name. Biblically, on the testimony of Jesus, he and the Father are distinct, in relationship with one another, and both fully God.
The evidence for the Holy Spirit on this point is not as extensive, but it’s still clear. For instance, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” The Spirit of God is shown to be involved in creation, in Genesis 1; and in John 15:26, Jesus teaches his disciples that the Spirit proceeds from the Father. The Father didn’t create the Spirit, the relationship is something much closer than that; the Spirit is of the same being as the Father. And then in Galatians 4, the Spirit is identified as the Spirit of the Son, indicating that there’s a similar close connection there. 2 Corinthians is the only place I can think of where the Bible comes flat out and calls the Holy Spirit God, but throughout the New Testament he is treated as God.
So the Father is God and Jesus the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God, and there is only one God; so we have three, and we have one, and somehow those are both true at the exact same time, and that’s God. Even one of the principal names of God in the Old Testament allows for that, because it’s a plural form. People have broken their brains trying to figure out exactly how that works, and nobody’s ever gotten there yet; the only thing that we can say for certain is that the only people who have produced explanations that human beings can fully understand have done so by denying one part or another of the biblical witness, making God less than what the Bible says he is. Or perhaps we should say, what he are, or what they is; ordinary language just doesn’t express it. All we can do is accept that this is one of those things that’s beyond our understanding—and that it ought to be, that this is a good thing. After all, any god small enough for us to fully understand would be too small to be God. When you consider that we don’t even fully understand each other, or even ourselves, we ought to expect that God should be too big for us to wrap our little minds all the way around.
Still, just agreeing with this isn’t enough. There are those who accept the doctrine of the Trinity as true but unimportant, and that’s a major mistake. For one thing, that always seems to lead to collapsing the work of one Person of the Trinity—most often the Holy Spirit, but not always—into the work of the others, or even into the work of the church. As Dr. Packer has pointed out, the latter is one of the characteristic theological errors of the Roman church—it’s why he always insisted we should study the great Eastern Orthodox theologians, because in the West, Augustine got it wrong and everybody followed him; it’s also why one of the strong emphases of the Reformation, out of which our part of the church tradition comes, was on a renewal and reinvigoration of Trinitarian thought, including a return to taking the work of the Spirit seriously. This is critical, because all three Persons of God are involved in our salvation, and all three are involved in our ongoing life. Somehow, whenever we start to lose sight of the work of one of them, we always end up losing sight of the gospel along with it; it always seems to result in legalism and salvation by works in the end.
As well, the doctrine of the Trinity reveals to us a highly significant truth: God is relational within his very nature. This is why John can say, in 1 John 4, that God is love. Have you ever stopped to think about that? This isn’t an adjective, like saying that God is good, or God is just; that would have been “God is loving.” Which is true, but not the same thing. Nor is this the same as saying “God loves.” Nor is this equal to saying “Love is God”—that we worship an emotion, or an impersonal force—because God is personal, a being, not merely a force. Is this statement just hyperbole? In other contexts, it could be, but that doesn’t fit with 1 John, where it’s made quite straightforwardly to support John’s assertion that anyone who does not love does not know God. This isn’t just praise of God, it’s a serious statement about his nature and character.
Spoken of any single person, these words would not make sense; but God isn’t just a single person. Instead, he is three in one, and the persons of God exist in eternal relationship with each other—relationship that consists of pure, unflawed, unadulterated love. We can say that God is love because love is the essence of his nature, because he exists eternally in love among themself. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit, the Son loves the Father and the Spirit, the Spirit loves the Father and the Son, and this is who God is, and this is why he do what they does.
The Greek Fathers expressed this by borrowing the word perichoresis from the Greek—it’s the word for a circle dance in which the dancers are whirling about in sometimes highly complex patterns, so that there is constant movement, each yielding to the other and being yielded to in turn. The relationship of the Trinity, they saw—and rightly, I think—is a joyful dance of mutual celebration.
Once we get hold of this, it helps us to understand some things about God that we may find puzzling or even off-putting. For instance, I’ve known people to complain about the fact that God describes himself as a jealous God, demanding whole-hearted, selfless praise from his people and indeed from the whole world; why, they ask, would we want to worship a God like that? And how does that square with Paul’s praise for the humility of Christ, who gave up his glory and his prerogatives for our sake? I’ve actually heard a preacher—one I otherwise respected quite highly—come out and call God a narcissist, and then try to make that OK by arguing that God is so great that he’s the only one who has the right to be a narcissist. I don’t think that flies. But I think this makes more sense when we realize what we’re seeing here: each Person of God is jealous for the praise that each of the other two deserves. When we ignore the Holy Spirit and deny his work, for instance, I’m sure the Spirit is grieved, but I would imagine that it’s the Father and the Son who are really displeased by that.
This also helps us understand what God is on about in our lives. I’ve said this before, that God didn’t create us because he was lonely, because he needed someone to love or to love him; he already had that. Rather, he created us as an extension of his love. We are not children of God in the same way Christ is the Son of God, but he created us in order to adopt us as his children, in order to expand the circle of the divine love by inviting us into it and including us within it. Of course, it wasn’t long before the first humans were convinced there was something better out there, and we’ve been following various branches of that rabbit trail ever since; and so God, who created us in love, pursued us in love, and redeemed us in love. His intent now is the same as it ever was, just with a lot of suffering mixed in as a consequence of our distrust and rebellious self-will.
Finally, I think this helps us see clearly who we are in God, and to understand why all our efforts to bargain with him or earn his favor are pointless and doomed to failure. God doesn’t need our love, and he doesn’t need anything we can give him—he is complete in themself. As such, he’s not out to get anything from us, or to try to manipulate us for his own benefit, because we can’t benefit him. He simply loves us because he is love, and he delights in our love for the same reason; he gives us work to do because he loves us, because whether we understand it or not, we need it, and he takes pleasure in us when we trust him enough to do what he gives us to do. He delights in us when we delight in him, when we trust his grace, when we seek his presence. Everything we can give God is purely extra—that’s why he takes so much pleasure in what we give him. He doesn’t love you because of what you’ve done, or because of what you might do; he simply loves you because that’s who he is and that’s why he made you—and whatever else may change, that never will, and so God’s love never will.