"Trinity": The Christian Name for God
"Trinity": The Christian Name for God
Over the next few Sundays we'll explore a concept of God unique to Christian spirituality called the Trinity. It's not a simple concept. On my way to church this morning I rushed into Starbucks, and my barista friend asked me, "So, what are you preaching on today?" "Um, God," I said. "Could you be a little more specific?" "Actually, no," I said. I just wanted to get to church and I didn't have time to explain Trinitarian theology.
At the very heart of Christian spirituality there is a notion called "the Trinity." It's so central that one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, Karl Barth, could even say, "Trinity is the Christian name for God." He wasn't talking about a character in The Matrix, but the very essence of God. God is a Trinity of three-in-one, co-equal and yet distinct, called the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The concept of the Trinity isn't simple, and there is no way I can make it simple. One of my mentors, C. S. Lewis, once said, "Everyone has warned me … 'The ordinary reader does not want theology; give him plain practical religion.' I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordinary reader is such a fool. Theology means 'the science of God,' and I think anyone who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about him which are available."
The Trinity is not simple. But, if you think about it, most of reality isn't simple. For instance, every one of the trillions of cells in your body is incredibly complex. Even the proteins in your cells are complex. Family relationships are complicated. Football is complex. I still can't figure out my $20 digital alarm clock. And yet, for some reason, when it comes to God or Bible study or spirituality we want simple answers; we don't want to think. But do we really want a God who is less mysterious than an alarm clock?
So, over the next two Sundays we'll think and pray about God as the Trinity. First, we'll ask questions of understanding the Trinity: What does that mean? Why do we believe it? Where do we find it in the Bible? Is this philosophical nonsense? Second, we'll ask questions about applying the doctrine: So God is triune—why should that matter to us? Let's imagine it is 11:00 p.m. tonight and, after watching Seinfeld or tucking my kids into bed, I spend a few minutes pondering another Sunday in my life. What difference has the doctrine of a triune God made in my life? The 19th century philosopher Kant once said that the idea of the Trinity "has no practical relevance at all … whether we are to worship three or ten persons in the Divinity makes no difference" in how we live our life. Is that true? I will argue that understanding and experiencing—and please notice that word experiencing—the Trinity has enormous implications for our everyday life.
Understanding the Trinity: What does it mean?
Let me begin with a warning: The Trinity isn't just a concept. We are discussing a real person who is present among us. I feel awkward standing up here talking about God when the triune God is here and ready to meet us this morning. It's easy for us to approach God like we're approaching a frog for dissection—something we can place on a table, cut apart, and explain with detached objectivity. God isn't like that. God is alive and utterly wild—the most alive and wild being in the cosmos. God wants to pour out his love into your heart this morning, so I don't just want you to think about God; I want you to enter into a relationship with God.
What do Christians mean when they talk about a triune God? When we say that "Trinity is the Christian name for God," what does that mean? Christians believe four things about God:
- God is one—we are not bi-theists or tri-theists. Thus we can and should pray with our Jewish friends the great prayer called the Shema: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). And although every follower of Jesus breathed the air of radical monotheism, they also met Jesus. And when Jesus said things like "I and the Father are one" (John 10:31), and when they saw Jesus do things that only God could do—forgive sins, control the forces of nature—they knew that they had met God in the flesh. And then, as Jesus had promised over and over again, they also experienced the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. Christians did not start talking about the Trinity because they liked the number three; they did so to make sense out of the way God had come to them as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So this led to the second conclusion:
- God is three—God is not a solitary monarch but a community of three.
- God is diversity—the three are one and yet the three are different. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are eternally different from one another. (And by the way, when we say "Father and Son," we're not saying that God is like a couple of guys in the sky. Triune language is our frail but necessary way of talking to and about God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the names that God has given us to describe the relationships between the three-in-one).
- God is unity—three in one, three torches burning in one holy flame of love.
The idea of the Trinity is like a complex and elegant math equation that holds all four of these truths in perfect tension. It is the only solution to the problem of how these four truths can combine into one truth. All kinds of smart people have developed analogies to try to explain how God can be three-in-one:
- God is like the spring that flows into the stream that flows in the lake (according to the church father Anselm).
- God is like a plant, with the Father as the deep root, the Son as the shoot that breaks into the earth, and the Spirit who flowers forth to spread beauty and fragrance (according to the church father Tertullian).
- That God is a Trinity of love means that God is the lover, the beloved and love itself all at the same time (according to St. Augustine).
- The Trinity is like three torches in which the light of the first passes to the second and then is relayed to the third until they are all burning in one blaze of holy fire.
Yet all these pictures break down. That's why Christian thinkers have always said that if we tried to grasp the Trinity we would be "frenzy-stricken for prying into the mystery of God" (Gregory the Theologian). This is beyond rational thinking, but that doesn't mean it's irrational. We can't fully understand the concept of the Trinity, but that doesn't make it nonsensical.
Let me tell you what this does not mean. It does not mean that God is like a pizza cut into three big slices. Nor is God like the three parts of an egg. It does not mean that God has three modes or three disguises—so God puts on a Father hat and creates the world and God puts on a Jesus hat and goes out to save the world and then God puts on a Holy Spirit hat …. No, they truly are three in one. When you meet the Father, you meet Jesus and the Spirit.
They all come together. When God creates the world, the Son and the Spirit are also intimately involved in creation. When Jesus redeems the world and saves us from sin, he is resurrected by the Father, and we are born anew through the Holy Spirit. And when the Spirit helps us grow spiritually, it is the very work of the Spirit of Jesus by the Father who sustains us. When we come to faith in Christ, we experience the triune God coming to us: a loving Father who embraces us, a Savior Son who died for us, and the Holy Spirit working in us to help us grow and mature in our faith.
They exist and work together in perfect unity and oneness. It is the only community on the face of the Earth—whether we're talking about schools or churches or families or marriages—that actually works all the time. There is a perfect sense of giving honor to one another. Jesus gives glory to the Father and the Father gives glory to Jesus (see John 17:1, 4-5, 22, 24 and John 13:31-32). The Spirit gives glory to Jesus (John 15:26). There is not a trace of jealousy, insecurity, hostility, or selfishness.
The Trinity in the New Testament
Where do we get this idea? Did the early church just make it up? Let's admit up front that we won't find the word Trinity in the Bible. That troubles some people, but we have to understand that the idea of three-in-one is strewn everywhere throughout the New Testament. I have listed some of the passages that imply the concept of the Trinity:
Applying the doctrine of the Trinity: What difference does it make?
Let's fast-forward to 11:00 p.m. tonight. It's dark and quiet; the day is ending. You're just finishing your homework (or thinking about the homework you should have done), reading your final blog of the day, listening to your children snore, or eating your last bowl of Wheat Chex. For the past 16 hours you have lived your life—you went to church, watched soccer, ate lunch, and folded laundry. What difference has the doctrine of the Trinity made in your life? Let me suggest five profound and practical ways that the triune God can change your life:
- It will change the way you love others—our spouse, our friends, our neighbors, our fellow pilgrims in Christ. That will be our topic for next Sunday.
- It will change the way you view God. The Trinity deepens our sense of the depth and mystery of God's nature. There is beauty and wonder and awe in the depths of God. God is not boring, and he is not bored. God is bursting with life and love and activity. God is the most holy, loving, living, creative, and fascinating being in the universe. Let me put it this way: God is a party or dance of love—and that party or dance has been going on for all eternity. Does that boggle our minds? I hope so. As I said, do you really want a God that's less complicated than your alarm clock? The wonder of God's nature caused the apostle Paul to cry out, "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? … For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever!" (Romans 11:33-34, 36).
- It will change the way you worship. We often put all kinds of pressure on ourselves and on others for our worship services. We have to get it right. We have to have some kind of "experience." We have to get fed. We have to get intellectually stimulated. We have to offer something to God. We do our thing; we watch the pastor and worship leaders do their thing. Pressure, pressure, pressure. But did you know that there was already worship going on before we arrived this morning? Worship is the gift of participating in Jesus the Son's offering to the Father in the power of the Spirit. Or to use less precise language, God is a party of praise and honor and glory. God is a worship service. Jesus offers his life to the Father. The Father gives glory to the Son. The Spirit leads the Son and gives glory to the Son. So whenever we gather together in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, we are invited into that eternal service of praise and worship.
- It will change the way you pray. Again, we often approach God with all kinds of pressure. I have to get it right. I have to say the right words, feel the right things—and if I don't, I can't approach God. Did you know that the Trinity is already praying for you? Jesus the Son is interceding for you (Hebrews 7:24-25). Sometimes we don't have the right words; sometimes we're hurting so badly that all we can do is groan. But the Holy Spirit takes our groanings and brings them to God the Father, and he listens to the deep groanings in our heart (Romans 8:26-27). Do you see how powerful this is? Do you see the resources that are available to you—even when you feel completely incompetent? Let me address fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, and encourage you to invoke the name of the triune God over your house and your children. At the end of the day today, listen and be quiet. Let the noise cease. And then lift your arms towards heaven (and make the sign of the cross if you want to) and say, "Triune God, I invoke your presence over this house, over my marriage, over my life, over the lives of my children, over this neighborhood, and over this world." This isn't magic; this is asking the living God, the triune God, to come in all his power and majesty and grace and love into your home. There is power in that.
- It will change the way you receive love. Because God is triune, followers of Jesus believe and live their lives in the love of God. The Bible tells us that "God is love" (1 John 4:18). The Trinity tells us that God was and is love from all eternity, because God was a community of love. And then that love spills over into our world—actually, it spills over into our hearts (Romans 5:5; Romans 8:15). Certainly, God's love is a holy love, but the triune God has opened the way for you to know him. So, come. At the end of this day you may consider yourself broken and insignificant, yet you are deeply loved. You may feel at the end of your rope. You may feel small, dirty, and ashamed. You may feel lost and empty. But you are loved by a three-fold cord of love. Jesus the Son has left the glory of heaven to come to Earth—living, dying, and rising again for our sake. The Father has said, "I will offer my only son to save my fallen and wayward people." The Spirit has been poured out in the Earth and into your heart. And you are invited into the presence of God.
God is a party of love, and you're invited into the party. Jesus the Son has opened the door, the Father stands ready to embrace you, and the Spirit is there to guide you. Do you know yourself as loved?
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.