COPING WITH THE HOLY TRINITY

Don't Reject Things Because They Are Hard to Understand

This article is directed, perhaps, especially to those who are not from a traditional Christian background.

Towards a Better Understanding of the Holy Trinity...

"Ultimately, The Holy Trinity is a mystery to human flesh. This, of course, should hardly surprise us, for, in a similar manner, how much can a young child understand of the mature and loving relationship of his or her father and mother, including the interaction between the components of love, intellect, psyche and soul within their personalities? A small child would not be able to grasp such things, and is not God even higher above us than the parents of a small child are above that child? Therefore it really should not surprise us that the Trinity can never be fully comprehended by men and women while 'in the flesh.'"

"It seems clear that the Holy Spirit is indeed a vital aspect of God; more so, for example, than the Angel of the Lord...it is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit - not against the Father, or the Son - which is the Unforgivable Sin (Matthew 12: 31-32)."

I once heard a man say, "Always knew the Trinity was wrong because - to my mind - it never made sense!"

Now what is wrong with that reasoning? Well, quite a lot actually. Is it not extremely dangerous to reject things entirely simply because we fail to properly comprehend them? Look, I am now 63 and I still don't really understand electricity, but - my - am I glad to use it! Never really understood it, still don't entirely understand it but I must recognise it because it certainly exists.

It must be true to state that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity has been an especially difficult Christian doctrine for many people. The great problem is that - to a human being - it just seems illogical: How can God be One and yet, also be 'Three Persons'?

In this article I want to help clarify this whole matter, I will set out to clarify what the Trinity is (and what it is not), and I hope that for some this will start to clear away the mists on this most important Christian subject.

We will begin with a definition of the term 'Trinity' which will require just a bit of discussion concerning the primary philosophical terms which have been used in this definition. I am keeping that part of it to an absolute minimum, and as simple as possible. We will then move on to a consideration of some of the relevant scriptural material. Finally, I will tackle a few of the famous misunderstandings on this doctrine, and offer one or two (hopefully helpful) analogies. It is surely worth the effort to attempt a possibly clearer understanding of what inspired Holy Scripture has certainly placed before us.

The classical theological meaning of Trinity is that God is One in His being, or essence, while, more internally, God is actually three in person. That is, there are three internal "relations" in God, such 'relations' probably being most accurately described as "persons." But one needs to perceive the sense in which the term "person" is being employed. One of the the problems is that there has been some change in the meaning and general thrust of certain terms down through the centuries, and even that word "person" is not entirely unaffected. We should understand that a "person" is, at the very least, a rational awareness and consciousness. We will all be aware, of course, of the human phenomenon of interaction between peoples, and to a lesser extent, even toward, and between, animals, so we have no problem with understanding the distinguishing between 'persons' in this broad sense. You and I both have our own private, self-contained existence, including full human personalities, some have used the expression 'personhood' to express this. We are separate and distinct persons, if you will, because all that is mine is not shared with you and vice versa. If we consider the family, a mother and daughter share the same nature, but are distinct in two ways:

1. They have distinct and private interior worlds of consciousness, and,

2. One stands in a different relationship to the other. While the mother is certainly the source of her daughter, this is in such a manner that, despite similarities, the daughter is not identical with her mother, but is a distinct, private and self-contained person.

So we all live in a world of separate, individual human persons, and we will note the same phenomenon in the animal world; we all accept this and simply take it for granted.

Now when we apply 'personhood' to God, things are obviously a little different in some ways (even while being remarkably similar in other ways). Christians do not believe that the 'persons' of the Trinity are separable from each other (as a mother is separable from her daughter, or a father from his son), so the three persons here have a remarkable unbreakable union, therefore we cannot say that God is "three substances" - no, God is one substance.

"...Some resorted to 'Modalism' as a humanly understandable way of explaining the Trinity. This is the concept of One God of One Person but with three separate 'modes' of existence, just as I could accurately be described as 'one man,' yet also as a 'son,' 'husband,' and 'father.' According to this theory, the Old Testament contains the 'Father' mode, the New Testament contains the 'Son' mode and, post-resurrection, the 'Holy Spirit' mode takes over. This is very flawed and Jesus' action of praying to the Father quickly shatters this schema. Eventually, 'modalism' was condemned as a heresy."

The Thomas Aquinas explanation of the Trinity was to say that although there is only one "substance" of God, making it forever true that God is entirely One, within the 'One' there are three subsistent relations; however, apart from this 'relations' aspect, there are no other distinctions in God. So the Father begets (paternity), the Son is begotten (filiation), and the Holy Spirit proceeds (spiration). This might seem pretty accurate as far as it goes, but the logical and philosophical conclusions of men can only take us so far, and this still leaves many questions. Ultimately, there can be no denying that the Holy Trinity is a mystery to human flesh. This, of course, should hardly surprise us, for, in a similar manner, how much can a young child understand of the mature and loving relationship of his or her father and mother, including the interaction between the components of love, intellect, psyche and soul within their personalities? A small child would not be able to grasp such things, and is not God even higher above us than the parents of a small child are above that child? Therefore it really should not surprise us that the Trinity can never be fully comprehended by men and women while 'in the flesh.'


Okay, let us now start to consider the testimony of Holy Scripture:


1. There is one God. Deuteronomy 6.4 clearly affirms that God is one as do various other texts scattered throughout the rest of the Bible. As opposed to the surrounding peoples, the Israelites were to have a single God to Whom their worship was to be directed. By the way, the liberal Bible 'scholars' of the 19th century insisted that all original concepts of God were animistic and that monotheism (the belief in one God), was a late arrival. They accused the original Bible writers of telling outrageous lies and of "fixing" the Bible's own dating and time scale. These critics, full of intellectual vanity and pride, lost huge ground, however, with the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those scrolls revealed a copy of the Hebrew Bible which was around 1,000 years older than anything which had been available and they too showed a full scriptural consistency and unity with no indications of later 'redactors' (editors) having tampered with the text.


"A better analogy might be to say that while I am one man of one substance, yet - within myself - I have three "persons" of 1. Intellect, 2. Emotions, and 3. Conscience. There is a sense in which my emotions 'speak to me' as does my conscience, so there is a certain 'separateness' and yet none of those things can ever be wholly separated from myself. The similarity could be taken even further: a friend could say, "I met Robin today and he gave me a message; the message was certainly from his conscience." Another friend might say, "Robin e mailed me but his emotions were speaking!"

2. 'God the Father.' It is quite clear that Jesus' preferred title for God was "Father." It is this title or name that is used as the primary one in the model prayer that Christ gave His people to use (Matthew 6:9). Here is suggested a unique kind of sonship between Jesus, and God, His Father. Moreover, Jesus is not slow to introduce us to the concept that true believers may also address God as 'Father.' The Gospel of John is particularly rich in Jesus' open acknowledgement of God as His Father. In the entire New Testament, the word for 'father' occurs well over 400 times. Of this number, around 270 instances are clear references to God; moreover, when we come to the Gospel of John, 'father' occurs 114 times - of this number, an incredible 107 are references to God! So the New Testament teaching on 'God the Father' is clear and very well substantiated.

3. 'God the Son.' Jesus is "Son of God." That this person is understood to be "God" is a conclusion that may be drawn from the way in which Jesus speaks about the meaning of His relationship to the Father and also from various other indicators, we may note this in numerous Scriptures, especially in the Gospel of John. Mark's Gospel is somewhat unique in that it does not include a great deal of Jesus' teachings but prefers rather to allow the reader to come to an understanding of Who Jesus was, based on recording the actions of Christ. For instance, we may note Jesus displaying His power over nature in His walking on the water. He displays power over life and death in raising others from the dead and, ultimately, returning to life after His death on the cross. The reader must then decide what these, and other, sorts of miraculous activities suggest; the reader is effectively forced to conclude that Jesus was more than a man. He was, indeed, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). Additionally, there is also a collection of texts that appear to directly call Jesus God, and these serve as confirmation for our interpretation of the rest of the biblical data. Peter recognised Jesus as 'God' in Matthew 16:16, and some of the other Scriptures which can be considered include Matthew 28:19-20; John 3:34-36; John 4:25-26, 29; 5:42-43; 6:6, 44-69;x16:19,30-33; 17:1-5; 19:28; 21:17; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Ephesians 3:9-11; Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:12-24 and Hebrews 1:2-10. However, there are many more such Scriptures.

The 39 Articles very correctly state,
"There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."
(The 39 Articles of the Church of England, 1563).

4. "God the Holy Spirit." It is quite clear that the Scriptures speak about the Holy Spirit in such a way that we must affirm that He is understood as God. The Spirit of God may be found "hovering over the waters" in Genesis 1:2 and undoubtedly had a major role in Creation, we then may note His powerful influence coming on people in the Old Testament, including Samson and certain other Judges of Israel. Under the New Covenant, baptisms are to be performed not only in the Name of the Father and the Son, but rather, "...In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19); This puts the Holy Spirit above the rank of angels. Overall, there appear to be at least two senses of "Holy Spirit" in the Bible: One is as a reference to God's intervention in the course of human history, including works of Creation. Truthfully, we know very little about this area but there would seem no doubt that this huge area of the Spirit's activities remain ongoing, perhaps especially in the area of sustaining the Creation, and inspiring certain peoples and events to keep God's timetable of events on this earth on course. In the New Testament, this use is especially present in Luke's writings. The frequency with which Luke uses "Holy Spirit" in his work is quite interesting in offering a plainly historical rendition of the life of Jesus (Luke 1:1-4), and suggesting that he wants us to see history as "guided along" towards its divine end or goal by the enabling activity of God's Holy Spirit in the world. In other texts, however, "Holy Spirit" takes on a more specific sense in distinction from the Father and the Son and it is also in these texts and others that the Holy Spirit is seen as rather more than a divine influence or activity, being none other than God Himself as a personal subject. The Spirit may be "grieved" (Ephesians 4:30), lied to (Acts 5:3-5), may be be "sent" and also "testify" (John. 14:26) and various other activities that are indicative of personal subjectivity and interaction. Putting the whole revelation together and mindful of our Lord's will that the Holy Spirit should be mentioned in the act of baptism along with the Father and the Son, then it seems clear that the Holy Spirit is indeed a vital aspect of God; more so, for example, than the Angel of the Lord. Finally, it is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit - not against the Father, or the Son - which is the Unforgivable Sin (Matthew 12: 31-32).

5. While being truly "One," the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct from each other to the degree that they may engage in personal inter-relationships. This forces us to affirm that there are personal distinctions or relations within the One True God. The reader should note that we are at this point allowing the data to control our conclusions, we impose nothing upon Scripture here, rather, we must honestly present Scripture as it has been delivered to us. So the point here is that the Father relates to the Son as does the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son. Without doubt, the Holy Spirit's part in all of this is somewhat less personal than the Father/Son aspect, yet still enough is stated within Scripture for us to refuse the popular concept of the cults and sects that the Spirit is, "Just the power of God." Clearly the most numerous of such personal examples would have to be the relationship between the Father and the Son described in the Gospels. Matthew 11:27 is a good example in which Jesus, referring to Himself in relationship to the Father as "Son," speaks of a mutual "knowledge" between the Father and the Son. The ability to have knowledge is an indication of personhood and rationality. That both the Father and the Son have such personhood is presupposed by their ability to know and their distinct personhood is indicated by the interaction of knowledge between the persons in their relation of knowledge. John's Gospel is especially filled with such examples. In the very first verse the Word, the Son of God (v. 14, 18), is with, or, as the Greek word implies, in relation towards, God and, yet, mysteriously the Word Himself is identified as "God." Holding that there is only one God, then, we are driven to the conclusion that the one God is interiorily related as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The same is true of the Holy Spirit since He is "sent" in the name of the Son, "teaches" words Christ taught His disciples, "testifies" of the Son, "proceeds" from the Father, and speaks what He "hears," (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13). Some have compared the Trinity to a family; this is not unhelpful as far as it goes, but we must appreciate that it falls far, far short of what Scripture reveals; members of a human family are capable of living entirely separate existences - no human family has ever been as "One" as this and even the expression 'divine family' falls very short.


Difficulties, and Proposed 'Solutions.'

"Contemporary Christians seem to be woefully ignorant of God as Trinity, and the inseparable implications of divine Trinitarian relations in everything that can legitimately be called “Christian.” Apart from a Trinitarian foundation of understanding there could be no Christological incarnation, redemption, resurrection, or Pentecostal outpouring. Apart from the Trinity there can be no viable understanding of regeneration, sanctification, the church, prayer, worship, baptism, Lord’s Supper, eschatology, etc. Apart from a Trinitarian understanding of God, Christianity disintegrates, and has nothing to offer mankind but a monadic religious worship object, or a mistaken monistic worldview."

James A. Fowler, 'Towards a Christian Understanding of God.'


We might now be starting to clarify some of these undoubtedly difficult areas. Plainly, we are to affirm that there is Only One God but we come to find that this God has revealed Himself in a variety of ways. Among these ways of revelation are three in particular which have a very special significance since they are revealed as standing in relationship not only to us as human beings but in relationship towards each other.

Some resorted to 'Modalism' as a humanly understandable way of explaining the Trinity. This is the concept of One God of One Person but with three separate 'modes' of existence, just as I could accurately be described as 'one man,' yet also as a 'son,' 'husband,' and 'father.' According to this idea, the Old Testament contains the 'Father' mode, the New Testament contains the 'Son' mode, and - post-resurrection - the 'Holy Spirit mode' takes over. Initially interesting maybe, but this construct does not finally work for several reasons including the fact that Jesus was able to pray to the Father while on earth. Eventually Modalism came to be considered a heresy. A far closer analogy might be to say that I am one man of one substance, and yet - within myself - I have three "persons" of 1. Intellect. 2. Emotions. and 3. Conscience. There is a sense in which my emotions 'speak to me' as does my conscience, so there is a certain 'separateness' and yet none of those things can ever be wholly separated from myself. The similarity could be taken even further: a friend could say, "I met Robin today and he gave me a message; the message was certainly from his conscience." Another friend might say, "Robin e mailed me but his emotions were speaking!" Jesus was able to pray to the Father, modalism could never make sense of that, but in my example I could say that my conscience "pleaded" with my intellect, or will, for the means/logistics/intellectual back-up to take a certain decent path or route. Like all such analogies this falls well short of the actual Holy Trinity, but this has better shape to it than modalism.

Some have been willing to grant a so-called "economic" Trinity, that is: the temporary adoption of "roles" by God, entirely for our sake during this age of Adam. In other words, God appears to be a Trinity but this is really only a temporary situation that will end whenever the purpose of such roles or distinctions has been finally fulfilled. This would be a form of accomodationism purely for the sake of mankind. This, again, falls short for several important reasons:


What We Can Affirm...


So Scriptural teaching itself affirms that God is certainly One, yet relationally Three. God's 'Oneness' is truly one of substance. This unity of substance makes it impossible to conceive of any division or separation in God. Yet we must also affirm that there are three distinctions (not separations, nor modes) in the divine being, yet they are not substantial distinctions but relational ones. The divine persons are then constituted by the relations in which they stand towards each other - this, after all, is as much as the Scriptures reveal. Of course, there must be much more here but undoubtedly those things lie in the area where mortal beings cannot trespass during the present age. Finally, we must believe that that which God has performed in time and space, must be the source of revealing a little of what God is like eternally, rather than being misleading or deceptive.
Robin A. Brace, 2007.



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