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The Trinity for Dummies

Jul 3, 2018

OK, another somewhat misleading title – but an attention grabber perhaps. The truth is, when we are dealing with the most exalted, complex and mind-boggling reality there is – the God who is there – it can never be simple or easy. How could we expect it to be otherwise?

And to make things even more difficult, mere man – finite, fallible and fallen – trying to understand anything comprehensively is already a big ask. Imagine how much more difficult it becomes when the subject we are trying to get a handle on is the eternal, infinite, omniscient, and omnipotent God of the universe.

But I am nonetheless trying to offer a rather simple article here on the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, and how it came about. If we were left to our own devices on all this we would be totally without hope. But the good news is, God has taken the initiative and revealed himself to us. He has not left us to flounder around on our own, trying to comprehend who he is and what he is like.

So we have his special revelation as found in the Bible. There in the two main Testaments we have lots of truth about God and lots of revelation about what we need to know about him. So we are not left in the dark, and we have much biblical material to deal with.

However, that is not the end of the matter. We still need to properly understand and assess all the biblical data given to us. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit has been given to believers to help in that process. He guides us in the truth as we seek to more fully and properly learn about who God is.

With the Bible and the guidance of the Spirit we are given real truth about God and other vital matters. It is not exhaustive truth, but it is sufficient truth, as Francis Schaeffer used to phrase things. We will never know all there is to know about God and this world – at least in this life – but we do have all the revealed truth we need to know what we must know.

With all that in mind, let me go back to the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. Critics of course will instantly point out the obvious, that the term itself is not found in Scripture. Well, of course. All sorts of useful words we use to discuss God are not found there.

That is not the issue. The issue is this: do those words properly convey or rightly represent what the biblical data is all about? They are often used as shorthand to bring together large swathes of complex biblical material. If one does not like such terms, fine, but we still have to deal with what they are trying to explain in terms of the overall biblical witness.

The question is, how did the early church come up with this idea of the Trinity? The very short answer is this: after carefully considering all the biblical material that was available to them – obviously the Hebrew Scriptures, but then too the newer authoritative writings that became the New Testament – that is what they came up with.

Let me try to make this a bit simple for my readers by conducting a little thought experiment. Suppose you had a person who had never heard or read anything about the Bible and Christianity his entire life. He is given a Bible and he carefully reads it from cover to cover.

As to the issue of God, he finds quite a lot of biblical data, and he wants to make some sort of sense of it all, and see how it all fits together. He will be doing, in other words, just what the early church tried to do. They also sought to make sense of things, eventually formulating the great early church creeds to discuss these profound biblical truths and doctrines.

So if our imaginary friend has carefully read, studied and sifted through all the biblical material concerning God and his nature, these are some of the bare biblical facts he would have to account for and try to make sense of:

-There seems to be progressive divine revelation throughout. That is, Moses seemed to know more about God than some of those before him, for example, because more revelation from God was given him. In a similar way, readers of the New Testament have more revelation about God and who he is than do the OT readers.

Sure, plenty about the character of God and so on is found in both Testaments, and they present a unified voice as to who God is and what he is like. But we certainly get newer understandings of just who this God is in the NT as we read about Jesus and the Holy Spirit. So what we find in the OT about God must be supplemented and taken further in light of the NT revelation.

-There seems to be a lot of NT data about Jesus being a divine being, doing things only God can do, and being worthy of worship, etc.

-Similar things can be found about the Holy Spirit.

-God is still understood as being one God (especially emphasised in the OT, but we already find there hints of a plurality in this unity).

-There is no thought in the NT of there being three Gods, so that approach must be ruled out. One God is still affirmed, but somehow a triune God seems to be presented.

So after much study, thought and prayer, and a careful examination of all this data, the person who read the Bible for the very first time – like the early church – would come to conclude something like this:

-There is just one God.
-This one God exists in three, distinct eternal persons.
-The three are all fully God, but are unique and distinct persons.
-There seem to be some distinctions in terms of roles and relationships in this triune God.
-This is a mystery – but one which we must try to deal with as best we can.

And then there would have to be some formulations and conceptualisation as to who this Jesus is. The biblical data – especially as found in the NT – seems to present another set of problems or questions. So the conclusion about him is this:

-He is one person, but with two natures: a divine nature and a human nature (since the time of his incarnation).
-This too is a mystery.

These seven points would be among the sort of stuff our first-time reader would come up with. They were the same points that the early church came up with. So after so much deep thought, discussion, prayer and study, they formulated various early creeds laying out these biblical truths in some sort of systematic fashion, utilising, when necessary, new terms to help describe what they were talking about.

Sure, the triune nature of God, and the two natures of Christ, are both deeply mysterious matters which we can only comprehend so far, but all the biblical data taken together and carefully assessed would seem to lead to these various conclusions.

That is how the early Christians proceeded. Erroneous teachings were quickly cropping up, so they had to offer some formulations of the biblical data as a bulwark against false teachers. They had to offer some parameters as to what orthodox Christian beliefs were all about – and to which ones were not.

So the first few centuries of the church were spent in these deliberations, disputes, discussions and consultations. Later on words like “Trinity” and so on were coined to get this biblical data into some sort of easily expressed statements – although not so easy to understand.

Summary

This piece of course was NOT any sort of definitive look at the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. How could it be, when entire libraries and two millennia of Christian thinking have not given us a definitive treatment of this? What I really sought to do is show why the early church came to the conclusions that it did.

Yes, my title was of course somewhat misleading, maybe even a bit unhelpful. The doctrine of the trinity is NOT simple, easy, or the stuff of bumper sticker clichés. It is complex, nuanced and mysterious – as is God himself. The best minds in Christendom for 2000 years have wrestled with the biblical material on this, and we still are seeking to get as good an understanding of it all as we can.

But it is hard to improve upon what the early church fathers offered us. And to dismiss this key biblical doctrine – and its corollary, the deity of Christ – because some of the terms we now use are not found in the Bible is unhelpful and dangerous in the extreme. So is the mindset that this is just some mere optional extra which Christians can take or leave at their own whim.

The Trinity and the deity of Christ are, and always have been, fundamental and basic Christian beliefs, and if one rejects those key teachings, one puts oneself OUTSIDE of the Christian faith. Heretics and cultists are outside the Christian faith because they do in fact reject the Trinity and the deity of Christ – among other things.

In sum, the doctrine of the Trinity basically flows from the self-revelation of God, as manifest in biblical salvation history. We infer the doctrine of the Trinity from what Scripture teaches. Thus we can say that it wasn’t invented, it was uncovered.

The doctrine of the Trinity is the best way we have of making sense of the account of God as found in the Scriptures. It is the best way to do justice to the totality of the biblical data we have available to us. So we affirm it and we defend it, because that seems to be how Scripture, and the Spirit, are best leading us.

But I have written on all this elsewhere in more detail. See these four articles for starters:

billmuehlenberg.com/2017/04/23/thinking-about-the-trinity/

billmuehlenberg.com/2017/12/15/the-deity-of-christ/

billmuehlenberg.com/2017/12/17/deity-jesus-affirmed/

billmuehlenberg.com/2017/12/18/answering-objections-divinity-christ/

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18 Responses to The Trinity for Dummies

  • In support of the Trinity I will quote 1 John 5:7 (NKJV)

    “For there are three that bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one”.

  • And here is a helpful 8-minute video on the trinity:

  • Allow me to possibly muddy the water a little (while not denying any of the above). Mankind is made in the image of God, but how do we see the Trinity portrayed through mankind? The nearest I can come to it is my personal theory that it takes a man and woman in unity to fully represent the image of God. That’s two persons not three, but possible a representation?
    Feel free to rip into this (nicely, of course).

  • Thanks John. I am not sure how being in God’s image has anything to do directly with the three persons of the Trinity. And I am not aware of any important theologian in 2000 years who went in that direction! If one is keen to find something three-ish about humans, I suppose one could go with the idea about man as being body, soul and spirit, or some such thing. But the one God in three persons really has nothing to do with humanity as male and female. A man is not a woman, nor a woman a man. But the three persons of the Trinity are all God in terms of WHAT they are, but three different persons in terms of WHO they are. And the standard understanding of man as being made in the image of God is that we have a mind, will, and emotions, much like God – and that gives you another three-ish thing to run with if you insist!

  • Hi John
    The man and the woman can make a child, the ‘third’ person?
    Just a thought.
    The Universe is made up of space, matter and time.
    Space= Length, width and height.
    Matter = Solid, Liquid and gas.
    Time = Past, Present & Future.

    Maybe just all coincidence? But maybe not?

    Just something to think about?

  • Nabeel Qureshi started his sermon brilliantly until trying to explain “My Father is greater than I”.
    Intrinsically this is not so “All three are equal” None plays any role higher than the other – However Christ during his time on this earth was both man and God – and voluntarily submitted himself to the Father ( Obedience to the cross) for the purpose of achieving salvation for his people, And it is in this context that He states that “My Father is grater than I)

  • Thanks Malcolm. Of course no analogy is perfect, and I do not fault him for his attempt. And even your last sentence at least hints at what we both said. As I put it: “There seem to be some distinctions in terms of roles and relationships in this triune God.”. But they remain fully equal nonetheless. So all three of us would say that in the Incarnation some subservience of role can be found, but no diminution of equality. Philippians 2:6-8 comes to mind here. Again, we dread in deep waters on these matters.

  • This is too important a doctrine to get wrong, right?

  • Kyle Bracher, it would be best to stick to verses that have proper attestation in the Greek manuscripts, not the infamous Johannine Comma that is found in only a handful of very late manuscripts. Compare Islam, testimony, and the Trinity.

  • When it comes to the Trinity, aren’t we all dummies?

    And is it not the case that if we could fully understand God, He would be less than us, not greater?

  • Yes quite right to both questions John!

  • Obviously I didn’t make my self clear enough. I wasn’t comparing the trinity to a man and a woman, but to a couple, which consists of two persons. Still a very tenuous comparison I know.

  • Thanks John. It is always worth thinking about, reflecting on, and trying to more clearly understand things like the triune God. Yes one could go a ways with that: a couple is one ‘thing’ involving two persons. The Trinity is one thing (God) involving three persons. Both terms are collective nouns. They express a plurality within a singularity. Even the Hebrew words for ‘one God’ in places like Deuteronomy 6:4 can be understood in this sense. Thanks again.

  • Re ‘My Father is Greater Than I’ – Without hearing Nabeel, perhaps because the Son is eternally begotten by the father might warrant the ‘greater’ epithet for the Father.

  • Re John Bennet’s thought – It was, I believe, a Greek Orthodox priest who I heard at YWAM in its early days in Sydney. He suggested that the Holy Spirit is a person because He carries the relationship of the two other Persons to his work as ‘executive God’ in the world (e.g. Genesis 1:2). Perhaps we could extrapolate that the relationship of man & woman in marriage creates another entity that mirrors the trinitarian one. Mind you, it is something to hold loosely, but it might fit.

  • Where I come from a guy called Patrick explained it as a shamrock – 3 parts – take one of and it ceases to be …I find that the best way to think of it …possibly the only way as the rest is a mystery …

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