Here, I look at concerns that have been raised about the doctrine of the Trinity as well as some thoughts about how Christians came to articulate this central teaching.
The source for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not only a reasonable goal to seek but a worthy one. And so before I try and say something helpful about why Christians use this language, I think it’s worth saying why these accusations against the Trinity are punches that never land.
First, the claim isn’t that 1+1+1 = 3. Rather, it points us back to my use of “person” in the first paragraph. Even though Christians fail to say this very much, our language about God is always analogous. We are forced to work with images and metaphors which allows out language limp just a bit closer to God. Further, Christians believe that the Scriptures are inspired and are thus reliable in what they tell us about God. As C. S. Lewis put it so pithily in an essay, “Christians think that God Himself has taught us how to speak of Him.” Thus, while a conception of a God who is all-powerful, who created and sustains everything that exists logically would include the idea that human language, and even human thought, likely cannot fully comprehend God as He is in Himself, Christians (and Jews and Muslims) all believe that God has given us language that is sufficient to speak truthfully about God. Thus, when we say that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are “persons,” the “” indicate that the word “person” when applied to the Trinity does not mean the same thing as when it applies to human persons. All human persons have a biological mother and father; all human persons came about as the result of human copulating; all human persons must eat to live; all human persons breathe oxygen. None of these, nor thousands of other traits, that properly and necessarily apply to human persons, apply to God.
If you want to see a great example of how the Bible tells us that we are using language analogously, reach Ezekiel 1 and note how many times the word “like” is used. If you’re feeling really adventurous, definitely read articles 2 and 3 of this section of the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas!
Thus we can also say that when we apply both “diversity” (i.e. the absence of complete uniformity) as well as “unity” to God, we are also doing so in a way that might be quite different than when applied to other things in the world. For God in neither a thing or person or being in the universe. The Christian and Jewish and Muslim view is quite different: there is God, and then there is everything that God creates.
Second, on the “philosophical speculation,” the idea that Christians would try and simply create a new conception of God because they were really into philosophy or Greek thinking simply shows that one doesn’t know much about philosophy or Judaism. This confession of a God who is Trinity has no basis whatsoever in Greek thought. And more to the point, all the first followers of Jesus were Jews. A random and novel conception of a God as Trinity, especially as a philosophical idea, would never have been able to gain any traction.
Rather, any many scholars of Judaism at the time has pointed out (Jewish scholars like Daniel Boyarin, for instance), when Jesus appeared on the earth, he “came in a form that many, many Jews were expecting: a second divine figure incarnated in a human. The question was not,” he writes, ““Is a divine Messiah coming?” but only “Is this carpenter from Nazareth the One we are expecting?” Not surprisingly, some Jews said yes and some said no” (The Jewish Gospels, pp 1-2). But here’s the critical piece: the doctrine that Christians embrace—that Jesus is both Israel’s Messiah and simultaneously divine—is a scenario that many Jews in Jesus’ day were expecting. If you think about it, it becomes very difficult to imagine how so many pious Jews would have embraced something so antithetical to Judaism and so contrary to it. And that Peter and Paul could continue to preach in synagogues makes the point only more emphatically. Jewish theology not only makes Christianity possible, but Christianity is a form of Judaism: Christianity is Judaism who says that Jesus is the Messiah of God and is himself divine.
“What?” you might say. “That sounds preposterous.” Take a look at Daniel chapter 7 for just one example:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man [that’s the first deity], and he came to the Ancient of Days [and there’s the second] and was presented before him. And to him [i.e. the Son of Man] was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14).
Sounds suspiciously like what is taught about Jesus in the Letter to the Hebrews, in St. Paul’s epistles, and in other places in the Book of Revelation. Take, for instance, the scene in Revelation 5, where we see God who is on the throne and “between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Rev 5:6); and the angles and the creatures all sing, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” (Rev 5:13). In fact, this scene reflects just as much a great deal of the Jewish literature written between the two Testaments as it does this scene in Daniel.
And not only that, Jesus identifies himself quite specifically as this same Son of Man in many places in the Gospels. Near the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, He says that His power both to heal and to forgive sins as a sign that He is the Son of Man—i.e. the Messiah who is God come in the flesh (see Mark 2:5-10). If you were to do a quick survey of the word “spirit” and “spirit of God” in the Old Testament, you’d have a long series of descriptions of God’s Spirit falling on someone or filling them. Gather all of this together and we see the beginnings of the biblical witness that is the scaffolding that makes possible the more robust articulations of the Christian confession of the Trinity.
In addition this, there is the second source of the Christian confession: the actual historical accounts and experience of those who knew Jesus and interacted with him: his teaching, his healings and exorcisms, His Passion, Death, and resurrection, his Ascension. Ten days later, the Holy Spirit falls on them at Pentecost, with the result being that the apostles and their successors are doing precisely the things Jesus did; expect, instead of happening in just one place, it’s happening all over the known world. The descriptions of all of this ends up being called “New Testament Scripture” by the Church, and we confess that is has the same kind of authority as what we now call the Old Testament.
Very quickly, early Christians began to ask a very critical and obvious question: What does all this mean? How can we lay all of this out in some sort of succinct way? The beginning to that answer can be found in places like John chapter 16. Here’s an overly brief summary:
- Jesus is on the earth because he was send by God, whom He calls “Father.” And just as a reminder, when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, the prayer He gives them says that we are able to address God in precisely the same way: “Our Father.”
- Jesus plans to return to the Father.
- This return to the Father is a good thing for the disciples and for us. Why?
- After Jesus leaves, He and the Father will send the Counselor, the Spirit of Truth, who speaks the words of Jesus and the Father. In other words, instead of God’s presence being localized in the human body of Jesus (in one spot in present-day Israel for a period of three years nearly two millennia ago), God’s eternal nature as Spirit is spread abroad throughout the entire earth and literally in the human bodies of His follows so that they will be able to be even closer to God than when Jesus was on earth (we talked about this two weeks ago when we celebrated the Ascension of Jesus).
This all points us to the process and gives us the Nicene Creed that many Christians confess every Sunday, who first version came from the Council of Nicaea in 325 and then the final version at the Council of Constantinople in 381. You don’t need to sit with the idea that the Trinity is the result of too much philosophical speculation to realize that it’s difficult to conceive how someone simply comes up with an idea like this and lots of people say, “sounds swell. I’ll die for that!” Rather, as lost of recent scholars of this early period have shows with painstaking accuracy (for example, Lewis Ayers and Khaled Anatolios), the Nicene Creed and the theology that lies beneath it can only be the result of a process of reading and interpreting the Bible.
The debates between what we now call “heretics” like Arius and the “orthodox” like Athanasius were first and foremost debates about biblical exegesis. The question was this: what form of speech makes the most coherent account of the biblical witness and the experience of Christians in prayer and the liturgy?
The answer that is given in the two councils I mentioned, as well as in the writings of many Christian theologians that lie beneath and around those councils (St. Athanasius, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Augustine), is one that both resonates with Judaism but reflects the particularity of New Testament teaching, most especially the revelation given to us in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who took on flesh eternally in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
One of the ideas I rejected was that the Trinity didn’t appear as the result of theological speculation, and this is true.
But I must now backtrack and say that the doctrine does resonate with a certain sort of contemplative, prayerful speculation. The question to contemplate is this: What does it mean that man is created is the image of God? Consider this thought: If God is simply and purely a monad (that is, absolutely singular), it would mean that the most profound change occurred after God creates creatures with whom He means to have a relationship and even to love. Love, we must remember, requires an Other and a context in which an “I” and an “Other” can relate. Without an “Other,” it would have been impossible for God to love before creation. And yet the scriptures teach us in I John 4 that God IS love. The only way this is true is either if a) God radically changed His identity after creating us, or b) that there was already an Other to love before creation.
Charles Williams playfully and bracingly puts is like this: “It is not good for God to be alone.” Part of the Christian confession that God is a Trinity is that God never was alone. There was never a time when the Father was not a Father (which has never been true for any human father, we should remember) who is eternally begetting his Son; there was never a time when the Son was not receiving his “sonship” and simultaneously giving himself, offering his very self back to the Father in mutual love; and the “context” in which this mutual self-giving takes place is itself the third Divine “Person” whom we call the Holy Spirit, the embodied love of the Father and the Son who has been poured into our hearts.
When we say that God is a Trinity, we are saying that God is always Love and that there was a love into which He could invite us. This is the love for which we are restless. Our complete incorporation into this love is what Christians call Heaven.