Is the Trinity Worth Our Time of Day?
The very title of this article suggests that some people think the doctrine, as it has been classically understood, is not worth defending. There are people, all of good intent no doubt, who think that Christianity and the world at large would be better off without the confusing edifice, much addressed but perhaps little comprehended through the ages.
This is quite understandable, actually, given that in an age of many evangelistic and social needs, not to mention ethical concerns and threats to humanity which seem to be springing up one after another in relentless succession, the technical academic study of the inner nature of God – when we don’t even fully understand our own human nature, so psychologists inform us – seems all but practically useless.
I have had a couple of well-meaning friends, both intellectuals, one of them a scholar, come up to me with the proposition that peace between two important religious groups would be benefited if only the majority of Christians would and could agree that there is little sense in emphasising the internal plurality of the godhead and stick simply to strict arithmetic monotheism.
Bible readers of the present time, like the two aforementioned men, are very wise. They are fully conscious of their right to examine and scrutinise the biblical support for any doctrine rather simply than buying into all that has been handed down by tradition. Their often personal projects are to be commended, if only because it is easy to be drawn unthinkingly into the ways of thinking and behaviour in which we may each have been brought up.
Therefore, I happily grant these men, one a bright Muslim and the other a progressive theologian, my time and intent attention whenever they should wish to dialogue and debate with me on the Trinity, a doctrine to which I hold dearly – I mention this purely for the purpose of full disclosure.
In one sense, these dear friends make life more meaningful for me, by asking the right and pressing questions to which I may be blinded by virtue of my own spiritual upbringing. They have me ponder whether the Scriptures do actually rather affirm a view of the Lord Jesus as, in terms of his nature, a human being like the rest of us, though without sin, and yet, in terms of his self-consciousness and what he does, somebody divinely authorised and empowered to carry out his designated task.
Centuries ago, these would be bold claims meriting serious and thorough examination and deliberation on the part of ecclesiastical judges. Today, the argument between whether Jesus is ontologically or functionally divine or capable of to all intents and purposes being regarded as God has degenerated mainly to verbal wrangling with little consequence for the congregation. So long as Jesus touches the Christian heart and reaches others through the church of Christ, so long as the Christian community continues to perform its salutary function within the societies in which it is found, that is sufficient. All that talk about “one being in three persons” can be safely kept away in the theological storehouse, in musty volumes, just in case any inquisitive soul might want to consult the writings of the church fathers or earlier theologians, or a parson should want to rediscover his sacred heritage or merely add a citation or two in their sermon.
Some might even be of the estimation that the Trinity being a mystery ought not to be inquired into, for fear of incurring divine wrath. Although there is no denying the fact that the finite human mind can never fully comprehend the infinite God who made those little minds, there are many indications in the Scriptures that witness to a divine desire for human persons to come to some level of understanding even of God. As such, the Lord Jesus informed his disciples in no uncertain terms that he is the revelation of the God, the heavenly Father, whom they have sought. The Christian faith is by no means uncertain about the nature of God.
In very deed, the Bible says a great deal more about God than one might expect from a book concerning a divine being. It bares to us his heart for humanity. It expresses profound sorrow over the inability of people to repent for their sins. It rejoices with the decisions people make to turn back to the Lord. The scriptures are replete with examples of God showing his true face to the people he made. The Christian faith does not make a mystery for mystery’s sake. In fact, mystery in the context of Christianity refers not so much to something that might be kept in a novel from the reader until the very end, but to the goodwill and disposition of God occasioning his redemptive act for all of us, a secret which is to be proclaimed and declared to those who are unaware, good news which is to be disclosed far and wide.
The gentle reminder of this piece is that the Trinity makes it possible for Christians, and all who will come into the fold, to live. It makes live liveable. Allow me to explain.
The very day we were told by somebody or by a tract we read or by the Bible itself that there is a God who made us, and were convinced of that truth, we were no longer separate from the stories that the Scriptures tell, as much as we may have felt that way at least at an initial stage, such as yours truly did. By the power of the Holy Spirit, in a way that only God can do, he witnessed in our spirits that the written words of the Bible are true. No longer did Adam seem so far off, despite the fact that he lived many hundreds years more than any of us would. Like the characters in the Bible, oft told in children’s church classes, we were human, and we have the ability, so our teachers or pastors may apprise us, to emulate those characters. They became role models for us, whenever they did well, that is, and we were constantly warned not to tread in the footsteps of those who erred, like Judas Iscariot, who finally betrayed Jesus.
I will not begin to critique the moralism that may have crept into today’s preaching. That is not my intent here. My more modest aim, if I may, is to demonstrate that the Creator-creature relationship in which all Christians have entered is, or should be, central to their very existence. God knows our genetic makeup. He placed us in our families. Under his watchful gaze, which does not always avail, or so it seems, we nurture our inward dispositions and personalities, and become adult. We relate one with another, whether it be at home, school, work, or out in society, with varying degrees of familiarity and social success. We relate with ourselves, feel comfortable about who we are, know who we are, much of the time through the appraisal people and we ourselves have, usually connected with our careers, but sometimes also with the way we have functioned in our families and social relationships. Fairly or less than justly, we are judged on the basis of our performance, and the degree to which we conform to the numerous expectations that are heaped on us from young to old age.
Even as grown-ups, we face myriad issues. Think of the flourishing and lucrative psychiatric and psychological industries. It is not just the down-and-out and those with crippling near-fatal mental illnesses that consult these practitioners but even those with worldly successful careers. I am not ashamed to confess that I have visited a number of them, not because, I hope, I am more needy than the rest of humanity, including my readers, but because I want to be sure I am on the right track with regard to my personhood, family, church and career. These consultations have benefited me tremendously and I strongly and sincerely encourage all who may be considering some form of therapy for any kind of matter to seriously consider professional psychological help.
My purpose in bringing up all these seemly unrelated issues is so as to furnish a basis of a personal and pastoral nature for the doctrine of the Trinity, the belief I love so much. As you would have already noticed by now, this is not an academic paper. Of those there is an abundance, and I am not quite qualified to comment on or write them.
My thesis is that what God has made he fully knows. I do not pretend to understand all the struggles you may be going through at this time, whether domestic abuse, teenage rebellion, an EMA, gambling or drug addiction, something related to the LGBTQ matter. But one thing I know – God fully understands you. We may not fully understand God, but the converse is surely true. If you have been driven to the point of suicide because no one – no one at all – understands you, please realise that God understands you, and God loves you. He sent his only Son to die for you on the cross.
Whatever you do, you need not live with guilt, because he takes it away and permits that Jesus bore the price for taking it away. We exist in a living and ongoing relationship with our heavenly intercessor and great high priest who by his precious and sacred blood is able continually to cleanse us of our sins as we bring them to him with even the slightest contrition – let no man judge you here.
Up to this point, we have already observed a complete and perfect harmony between the Creator God and the Redeemer God. They are one and the same, and there is no need to separate them. I am not implying – God forbid – that the Father and the Son are the very same person and that the Father is the Son and the Son is the Father. They are one in that they have the very same nature, the very same mind, same desire, same will, same purpose, and act in the same way every time, and it has been so from eternity, and will remain so unto eternity.
Would there not be a massive problem, think we not, if the transcendent Creator God were a different personality from the Redeemer God? What if there were some heavenly disagreement within the divine council concerning what ought to be done about this or that person, or if the Son decided against offering himself on the cross for humankind? The consequences would be unimaginable. We are fortunate, however, that there is no such worry we need have, because the Trinity enshrines the belief that the transcendent Creator God is no different, though not identical, from the Redeemer God. They have a common interest, and that interest is the eternal wellbeing of humankind, of you and me.
We struggle with guilt concerning our behaviours, and even our thoughts. We know that it is not just that the world is not as it should be, but we are not as we should be. Yet again, we are not left to our own devices, for there is someone who both convicts us of our guilt, and leads us to repentance. He teaches us the way of truth in a way that no human being could ever do. He does not simply convey to us knowledge and enlightenment that gives us rational and mental faculties and the ability to do life in a reasonable fashion, to order our lives according to God’s good desire. He certainly deals wisdom out to us, and makes us see the error of our ways where we have gone wrong. At the same time, he changes our very hearts, he moulds our characters, and he shapes our personality, so that we choose, will, desire, and pursue the good plan of God, rather than having that forced or imposed upon us externally. This is an internal force that works within us, and he is not merely an impersonal source of moral power; he is a person known as the Holy Spirit, and his brief is to renovate the household that is our hearts.
It does not take a rocket scientist to recognise that we live in a world where temptations abound both within and without. The Holy Spirit enables – guides, directs, and empowers – us to survive and thrive in such a difficult context. Once again, as you may have already conjectured, the Holy Spirit is no different in nature and will and disposition and desire from the Father and the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. If he were, perhaps he might guide our hearts astray, and in a manner different from the good purpose of the Father and the Son, and I am quite sure none of us would take kindly to that.
Having said all that, it would admittedly be far less inconvenient to speculate that instead of being three, the godhead might be more palatable to many people, including Christians, if it were simply viewed as monolithically and arithmetically one. After all, could not God the Almighty accomplish all the above feats as a single person without any other? Here is where the rubber meets the road, as it were, if you would kindly indulge the cliché slogan, for we, or anybody else for that matter, are at no liberty to amend the biblical text, which clearly demonstrates Jesus praying to the Father, who is God. This would not be a monumental issue if it were not for the fact that the highest Christological titles and statuses are assigned and ascribed to the Lord Jesus, placing him on par with the Father, with God himself.
Arguments in favour of the Trinity as biblical
The usual arguments marshaled in favour of the view that the Trinity is biblical, restricting ourselves only to proof texts, may be conveniently found in one of the sermons preached in 1522 at Wittenberg on Trinity Sunday by the sixteenth century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (all translations by John Nicholas Lenker et. al.):
Commenting on John 1:1-3, he preaches: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made,” Luther says, “Now if he is not made, but is himself the Maker, he must indeed be God.”
Concerning Ps. 110.1 and Ps. 8, the reformer expresses that “if God has set him (Jesus) at his right hand and made him lord of all in heaven and earth, he must indeed be God; for it would not be fitting that he should set him at his right hand and give him as much power over all cretaures (sic; as it appears in the original quotation) as he himself possesses, if he were not God. God will not give his glory to another, as he says in Is 48, 11. Thus, we have here two persons, the Father, and the Son to whom the Father has given all that is subject to him. To “sit at the right hand of God” means to be over all creatures; he must therefore be God to whom is given all this.”
To Luther’s mind, there is more evidence of the Lord Jesus’ divinity in Ps 2:8, of which he opines, “He is truly enthroned king of all. He is God’s child, and the world it (sic) subject to no other prince or king. Likewise, in another psalm, David openly calls him God, when he says: “Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of equity is the sceptre of thy kingdom. Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated wickedness: therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.” Ps 45, 6-7. God will make no one such a king who is not God, for he will not give the reins out of his hands; he alone will be the Lord over heaven and earth, death, hell, the devil and all creatures. If he, then, makes Christ Lord of all that is created, Christ must truly be God.”
Luther is also able to prove from the Scriptures the deity of the third person of the godhead, as when he says of the concluding Matthean baptismal formula: “Here divinity is also ascribed to the Holy Spirit, since I may trust or believe in no one but God. And I must trust only in one who has power over death, hell, the devil and all creatures, whose authority withholds them from harming me, and who can save me. None can suffice except one in whom I may trust absolutely. Now, Christ in this passage commands that we should also believe and trust in the Holy Spirit; therefore he must be God.”
Luther is not quite finished. In relation to Ps. 33:6, “By the word of Jehovah were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the Spirit of his mouth,” there is more to be remarked regarding the divinity of the Spirit: “Here is it quite clear that the Holy Spirit is God, because the heavens and all their hosts were made by him. And, again, David says in Ps 139, 7-8: “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, thou art there.” Now this cannot be said of any creatures – that it is everywhere and fills the whole world – but only of God, the Creator.”
A frequent text cited in support of the theory that the Scriptures do not so much uphold a conception of the Lord Jesus as ontologically divine but purely and merely a human messenger, albeit one authorised by God, is that found in various versions in Matt. 19:16-17, Mark 10:17-18, and Luke 18:18-19, where the Lord Jesus is encountered asking a wealthy young ruler why the latter had addressed Him as “good”. Upon these myriad passages, John Calvin intimates that Christ does not hereby deny His own divinity, but strikes at the heart of the hypocrisy, nurtured by custom, of which the young ruler may have been culpable in applying to presumably sinful and unworthy human persons a title reserved only for the divine.
As Jonathan Edwards points out in his Miscellaneous Observations concerning the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity (Part III, §3), “When the rich young man called Christ Good Master, not supposing him to be God, did Christ reject it, and reprove him for calling him so? He said, “There is none good but one, that is God;” meaning, that none other was possessed of goodness that was to be trusted. And yet, shall this same Jesus, if indeed not that God who only is to be called good, or trusted in as such, be called in Scripture, He that is holy; He that is true? the Amen, the faithful and true Witness? the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace? the blessed and the only Potentate; the King of kings, and Lord of lords? the Lord of life, that has life in himself, that all men might honour the Son, as they honour the Father? the Wisdom of God, and the Power of God? the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end? God, Jehovah; Elohim, the King of glory?”
Thereby, in saying what he did, Calvin avers, “Christ had no other intention than to maintain the truth of his doctrine; as if he had said, “Thou falsely callest me a good Master, unless thou acknowledgest that I have come from God.” The essence of his Godhead, therefore, is not here maintained, but the young man is directed to admit the truth of the doctrine. He had already felt some disposition to obey; but Christ wishes him to rise higher, that he may hear God speaking. For – as it is customary with men to make angels of those who are devils – they indiscriminately give the appellation of good teachers to those in whom they perceive nothing divine; but those modes of speaking are only profanations of the gifts of God. We need not wonder, therefore, if Christ, in order to maintain the authority of his doctrine, directs the young man to God” (emphases his).
To these we append the declaration in Heb. 1:3 to the effect that the Lord Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” or, in the words of Paul, “the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4, ESV). In church history, the Son is also often given titles defining Him as, in varying degrees, an indispensable part of the Godhead, such as the ‘arms’, ‘word’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘son’, in addition to ‘image’ and ‘glory’, all of God. This has led, as underscored by Ralph Cunnington in Jonathan Edwards’ Discourse on the Trinity, to stupendous assertions like Edwards’ that “the Father understands because the Son, who is the divine wisdom, is in him. The Father loves because the Holy Ghost is in him. So the Son loves because the Holy Ghost is in him and proceeds from him. So the Holy Ghost, or the divine essence subsisting in divine love, understands because the Son, the divine idea, is in him” and Cunnington’s “[in] other words, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not wise and loving independent of each other. Rather “their relations to each other constitute who they are”” ("A Critical Examination of Jonathan Edwards's Doctrine of the Trinity," Themelios 39, issue 2 (July 2014); http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/article/a-critical-examination-of-jonathan-edwardss-doctrine-of-the-trinity). Whatever one might make of those remarkable claims, the fact remains that the idea that the Son is ontologically divine is grounded both in the Scriptures and classical theological reflection on them.
Another apologetic for the Trinity hails from a twelfth century Scottish monk and Prior in the Abbey of Saint Victor. Richard of Saint Victor (On the Trinity, Book Three, 4, translated by Ruben Angelici) writes: “We have noticed that there is nothing more glorious, nothing more splendid than being unwilling to possess a single thing that one should not want to share [also with others]. Then, the supremely good person did not want to be deprived of another one participating in his greatness; and that which he willed to happen, had to take place necessarily, as his will was omnipotent. Yet, he [must have] always willed that which he has once willed, since his will was immutable. Thus, it was necessary to the eternal person to have [another] co-eternal [person], and it was impossible for any of them to precede or follow the other [in time]. [In fact], nothing can grow old and disappear in the eternal, immutable divinity, just like no new thing can develop either. As a consequence, it is absolutely impossible for the divine persons not to be coeternal. Actually, there is also complete happiness where true divinity is found, where supreme goodness resides. And supreme goodness – as it has been observed – is not able to subsist without perfect charity-love, and perfect charity-love cannot be produced without a plurality of persons. After all, complete happiness cannot be realised without a true immutability, and true immutability cannot be without eternity. True charity-love requires multiplicity of persons. A true immutability requires eternity of persons.”
Furthermore, it makes very little sense, in this writer’s opinion, to assign to the Lord Jesus every aspect of divinity short of an ontological element. Is this not to subscribe again to the Hellenistic framework of substance? There is no error in doing so, but the arguments for Jesus’ functional divinity or acquisition of all but ontological divinity sound twisted at best in their very noble and laudable attempts to avoid what they see as the intellectual and rational scandal of the Trinity.
There is no scandal anywhere with regard to the Trinity, unless one has neglected the reading of the entire Scriptures, or comes with some other motive. Even in the absence of any truly satisfying and feasible explanation of the Trinity, Christians have maintained through the ages in the form of the Nicene Creed, the substance of the Trinity, without feeling in any way that their commitment to logical coherence is compromised. May it please God, to whom, with the Son and the Holy Spirit, belongs all glory, to preserve his church pure against all manner of compromise appertaining to the Trinity.
Edmond Chua is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Otago, New Zealand. His research interests include the logical coherence of the Trinity, for which he has had published a peer and journal-reviewed monograph ‘God-ness’, ‘God-ity’, and God: A Historical Study and Synthesis of the Christian Doctrine of the Divine Being (New Orleans, LA: University Press of the South, 2015).