HOW DOES THE TRINITY MAKE ANY SENSE?
We’ve come a long way here. We started with the idea that we can figure out a few things about God, even without special revelation. We found that God (a powerful, spiritual, intelligent person) created the world for some reason. We human beings, however, are broken and don’t function the way we are supposed to. To find out anything else would require God to communicate to us and to authenticate His message by doing things only He could do, namely miracles. We argued that the Bible is historically reliable and could be trusted, barring contrary evidence, to be accurate on matters of what happened. The Bible depicts Jesus as a man who claimed to be more than just a man, but rather God in the flesh. He authenticated this with His life and by rising from the dead. This raises some obvious questions: If Jesus is God, who is His Father? Isn’t that another God? Didn’t the Old Testament say there is only one God? Isn’t this the worst example of miscounting ever?
Let’s Clear This Up (or At Least Try To)
Let’s get some terms straight because it is the confusion of these terms that causes the most trouble. Ever since the Second Council of Nicea the Christian view of God has been this:
God is a single entity (being) with three centers of consciousness (persons) that are coeternal, coequal and consubstantial.
That last bit (coeternal, coequal, and consubstantial) is just meant to reinforce that the three persons are all the same being and that no one person is substantively superior to another. To put this in really simple terms, God is one “what” that consists of three “who’s”. Since God is infinite, each person of equal power. Since the being has always existed, so has each Person. What are the main points? Here they are:
There is one God (being).
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each fully God.
Each of these persons (the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit) is not one of the others.
Does that really clear things up? Only a little. It’s still easy to get lost, particularly because God is a unique being and there aren’t any perfect analogies. Every analogy we’ve heard or read has always ended up either misunderstanding the concept or promoting a heresy. Sometimes both. Other than above, the only thing I can say with any confidence is that we know of lots of things with no centers of consciousness at all, like rocks, helicopters, puddles that my kid likes to jump into, etc. We also know of a bunch of things with a single center of consciousness, like parakeets, telemarketers, and my kid who likes to jump into puddles. Is it really impossible for there to be a single thing with more than just one center of consciousness? It’s at least conceivable (i.e., hydras from ancient myth, Fluffy from Harry Potter, etc.) and that might be the closest thing we can point to as an example. If it’s conceivable and it’s not logically incoherent, we’ve got to at least take the idea as reasonable, however it might grate against our intuitions. After all, whatever gave us the idea that God would be that similar to His creation? We should expect some differences, and this one seems to address a few philosophical problems (i.e. the one vs. the many, origin of personhood, etc.). With that, how did Christians even come up with such a weird idea to begin with?
Does the Old Testament Even Teach This?
That’s a complaint I’ve heard often. “The word isn’t in the Bible. Why do you think such a thing? Doesn’t the Bible say time and again, ‘The Lord is one’?” It’s a fair criticism, but it’s one that can easily be addressed by considering the historical facts and the biblical data.
First, like any document, you have to consider the context in which it was presented. The schema (“Hear, O Israel? The Lord our God, the Lord is one!”) was presented to the Israelites as they came out of Egypt, a polytheistic culture, and entering into Canaan, another polytheistic culture. If God is in fact a Trinity, He could reveal Himself to them in two ways, either as one God or as three Persons. Which is likely to have miscommunicated more if presented, “God is one” or “God is three.” Given the polytheistic cultures, if God is a Trinity, claiming God is three persons rather than one being would likely have resulted in tritheism, the belief in three different gods. That sounds like a limited form of polytheism, which is exactly what God was trying to avoid – Him appearing as one of several other options. Making the assertion “God is one!” Seems to avoid that likelihood. Through His prophets, God spent roughly the next thousand years pounding the idea home with the Israelites. Eventually, following the exile to Babylon, they finally got it. Upon their return to Jerusalem, the Israelites never had a significant problem with polytheism ever again.
Second, just because a word doesn’t appear in the Bible doesn’t mean the concept isn’t there. The terms “husbandry”, “math”, “astronomy”, and “polytheism” don’t show up in the Bible either, but we know the concepts were understood. Let’s not pretend that the lack of a term means a lack of understanding.
Third, while the word does not appear, there are several places where a word for “oneness” in a very strong sense could have been used but wasn’t. For example, the term elohim is used as the name of God in Genesis 1. This is in the passage that says, “Let us make man in our image.” Kind of weird. However, throughout the Old Testament, the term that refers to God as “one” is echadh, a term that would be used for terms like “couple”, “family”, “mob”, etc. Notice that each of those things consists of fundamental and essential parts. You can’t have couple unless you have two people. No exceptions. You can’t have a family unless you have parents and children. You can’t have a mob unless you have quite a few people and they’re a bit unruly (an bunch of people that aren’t unruly is just a crowd). Similarly, it may be that God as one is one being that consists of three persons. However, elaborating on this specific issue would likely have been lost on a people surrounded by and infatuated by polytheism.
Fourth, in a few places in the Old Testament, a distinction is made between divine persons (Psalms 2:7, 110:1; Proverbs 30:4; Isaiah 48:16). In fact, some believe that the Angel of the Lord mentioned in some parts of the Old Testament (Genesis 18:1-33; Joshua 5:13-15; Judges 13:2-25) is in fact the Son of God before the Incarnation.
What About the New Testament?
This question doesn’t come up as much simply because the New Testament is so much more explicit about it. Even though the term Trinity doesn’t show up, we’ve got a few clues to suggest that it’s not as far-fetched as some believe it to be.
First, when Jesus made his claims about being God in the flesh, no one said he was crazy, irrational, or illogical. The concept itself didn’t seem to be the problem. The problem for many was who was saying it. After all, Jesus was a carpenter’s son and that would be like Jesus was the son of a surfer in Nevada. Sure, it’s possible, but not what anyone would expect. Most people thought the Messiah would come out of nowhere and Jesus’ parentage seemed to be a matter of public record. Clearly, the Messiah would not be a child born under such suspicious circumstances – they knew how soon after getting married Mary gave birth to Jesus. On top of that, Jesus was from Nazareth. That would be the equivalent to saying Jesus was born to hillbillies in the backwoods of West Virginia (no offense meant to those in West Virginia). Yet, that’s where he was from. The issue for Jesus’ critics was not what he was saying but that it was Jesus who was saying it.
Second, the distinction between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is consistently maintained throughout the New Testament. At Jesus’ baptism, all three show up separately (Matthew 3:16-7). In the Great Commission, all three are given honor and specifically referred to by the same name (Matthew 28:19). The Father is clearly mentioned as God throughout the New Testament. Jesus nature as God is clear in John 1. The Holy Spirit is explicitly referred to as God in Acts 5:3-4. The thing that is curious about all this is that neither the disciples nor those they talked to seemed to have any conceptual issues with the Trinity. From the book of Acts, it seems this was all well and good, but the issue of Jesus rising from the dead was troublesome, but we’ve already addressed that, haven’t we?
If God (a powerful, spiritual, intelligent person) has created the universe for a purpose and revealed it to us through prophets and recorded that message for humanity so that we can fix our broken lives such that we can fulfill the purpose for which we were intended, we had best pay attention. If God’s message has been confirmed by miraculous events such as the death and resurrection of Jesus, we had best take what Jesus said seriously. However, those that reject the claims of Christianity once they’ve been presented the evidence, or fail to take them seriously, do so, not out of an overabundance of reason or rationality. There is something else at play. There is a trust issue. That’s what faith really is, trusting the object of one’s faith, not that something specific would be done, but that the object of faith would do what is right. If you don’t trust God, I encourage you to ask yourself why. After all, we’ve presented a case here that’s rational and reasonable, but often trust has little to do with how rational or reasonable people are. On the other hand, if you have faith, you will act accordingly, seeking God through prayer, through His word, through talking with other about Him, both those that follow Him and those that might.
A Formulation and Defense of the Doctrine of the Trinity – Reasonable Faith article
The Trinity: Unique, Yet Rational – STR article
Trinity – CARM article
What Can We Know About God? – Biblical Training video (Lesson taught by I. Howard Marshall)