This article was written to accompany the ‘The Trinity‘ hangout.
- Is thinking about the Trinity important? Why/why not?
- How would you explain that God is Trinity to somebody who asks?
God Is Not Like an Egg
The Trinity is important because God is important. God is Trinity, and so to know God as he is, we must know him as Trinity.
Historically, the idea of God being Trinity has been defined by saying that he is ‘One God in Three Persons.’ The Father is a person. The Son is a person. The Spirit is a person. Together they are one God.
This description is a good summary of the Bible’s teaching on the subject, but it can leave some people confused as to exactly how these three persons can be one God.
In his excellent book, ‘The Good God’, Mike Reeves points out that this confusion is reinforced by some of the analogies that are commonly used to get the idea across,
“‘The Trinity,’ some helpful soul explains, ‘is a bit like an egg, where there is the shell, the yolk and the white, and yet it is all one egg!’ ‘No,’ says another, ‘the Trinity is more like a shamrock leaf: that’s one leaf, but it’s got three bits sticking out. Just like the Father, Son and Spirit.’ And one wonders why the world laughs. For whether the Trinity is compared to shrubbery, streaky bacon, the three states of H2O, or a three-headed giant, it begins to sound, well, bizarre.”
God’s Trinitarian nature is not like an egg or a shamrock. These analogies are not only strange, but misleading. The Trinity, when rightly understood, is not a puzzle to explain but a glorious truth to celebrate.
THINK IT THROUGH
- What other analogies have you heard (or used) to try to explain the Trinity?
- Is there an analogy that is more helpful than the ones Reeves mentioned in the quote above?
God’s Own Analogy
There is no problem with using analogies to try to explain what God is like. The problem is when those analogies do not work and produce confusion rather than clarity.
God actually uses an analogy, or ‘likeness’, in Scripture to reveal himself. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male can female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)
These verses are important in our understanding of the Trinity for two reasons. The first is that in the very act of creation, God is referring to himself as ‘us’ rather than ‘me’, strongly suggesting a plurality of persons (a suggestion that is confirmed in John 1:1-3).
The second reason is the explanation of what it means that humanity is created in God’s image. Though the image of God is multi-faceted, one aspect of it is given pre-eminence in the verse; our existence as plurality in community. Verse 27 is making a parallel by saying the same thing in two different ways: we are made in God’s image, and we are made male and female. The Bible is treating these two ideas as equivalent. That we can be male and female but become one, enjoying close, perfect, loving relationships, reflects the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit in perfect, loving community.
The analogy that the Bible uses to describe God is that of a human family. By describing humanity created male and female as ‘God’s image’, and even by the very names that God has chosen to reveal himself, ‘Father’ and ‘Son’, we see God inviting us to look at the relationships of families to get an idea of what the Trinity is like.
- What light does it shed on what the Trinity is like that the Bible compares it to family relationships?
Of course, we should not see the Trinity as exactly like a human family in every way, but rather see the human family as a pale imitation of the Trinity. Nevertheless, the idea of family does help us to grasp something of how God is Trinity. Jonathan Edwards went so far as to describe God as “The society or family of the three.”
The Lord Our God, The Lord is One
Even the most well-known Bible verse emphasising the oneness of God carries this idea, and helps us to think about what ‘one’ really means. “‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
Commenting on this verse, Reeves writes,
“‘Then what about Deuteronomy 6:4?’ I hear my many Muslim readers cry. ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ One, not three. But the point of Deuteronomy 6:4 is not to teach that ‘The Lord our God, the Lord is a mathematical singularity’. In the middle of Deuteronomy 6, that would be a bit of a bolt from the blue to say the least. Instead, Deuteronomy 6 is about God’s people having the Lord as the one object of their affections: he is the only one worthy of them, and they are to love him alone with all their heart, soul and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5). In fact, the word for ‘one’ in Deuteronomy 6:4 really doesn’t convey ‘mathematical singularity’ at all well. The word is also used, for example, in Genesis 2:24, where Adam and Eve – two persons – are said to be one.”
God’s oneness is not metaphysical or mathematical; it is relational. God is one because of the closeness of the relationships between the Father, the Son and the Spirit, just as Adam and Eve were one in their marriage relationship.
It is for this reason that Jesus can pray, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one.” (John 17:22)
Jesus desires the church to be one in the same way that he and his Father are one. Metaphysically, the prayer would be nonsense. Relationally, it is beautiful. Because the Father and Son have the oneness of loving relationship, so the church can be one in the same way that the Trinity is one.
To what extent did the following Biblical characters have an understanding of God as a plurality of persons (use the listed Bible verses as a guide)?
- Moses (Exodus 31:1-3; 33:9-11, 18-23)
- David (Psalm 110:1)
- Peter (Matthew 16:16)
- John (John 1:1)
One of the reasons for confusion about the Trinity can be an incorrect starting point. It is possible to begin with a preconceived notion of ‘god’, which leaves the problem of somehow accounting for how that ‘god’ is three.
A much better starting point is to begin with the Biblical teaching of the three divine persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and then to ask what it means for these three to be ‘one’ . As we have seen, it is primarily about relationships.
Father & Son
The best way to develop an understanding of the Trinity is to look at what God has actually said in Scripture. Jesus consistently used the words ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ to describe the first and second persons of the Trinity. Not only do these words point to the relational unity they have, they help us to understand the nature of those relationships.
This is elaborated in many places in John’s gospel, with one of the best examples being found in John 5, “This is why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’ This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son, just as they honour the Father. Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him.’” (John 5:16-23)
These verses paint a picture of the Son imitating the Father. The Son is not initiating, but rather is observing the actions of the Father and doing likewise. In some ways, it is comparable to a family business where a father demonstrates his craft to his son, who then does the things his father did. This is not to suggest that at one time the Father worked without the Son, nor that the Father is planning to retire, but rather to describe a specific shape to the relationship within the Trinity. The Son is doing what he sees the Father do by the authority that is given to him by the Father.
The Trinity is not only about the three persons, but about the relationships between them. There are specific ways that the persons relate to each other and roles that they perform.
THINK IT THROUGH
- How would you describe the distinct roles within the Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit?
In love the Father initiates and in love the Son accomplishes.
This is true in everything that God does: it is the Father who initiates and it is the son who accomplishes. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34)
This relationship between Father and Son is outworked in a number of ways:
- The Son has life in himself (that was granted by the Father).“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” (John 5:26)The Father is the source of all things. He depends on nobody for his life. As created beings we are derivative; our life comes from another on whom we depend every moment to uphold and sustain us.
Jesus’ life is also given by the Father, but in a completely different way. He was not created, so his life is not dependent in the same way that ours is. He has life in himself. Nevertheless, this is granted by the Father. There was never a moment that this began. God has always been granting his Son to have life in himself.
- The Father sends the Son.“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)Salvation was God the Father’s idea. He so loved the world, that though it was perishing, he devised a plan for people to have eternal life. This is the Father acting as the initiator.
Salvation was accomplished by God the Son. The Father sent his Son to accomplish the plan by bearing our sins on the cross.
The Father initiates. The Son accomplishes.
- The Son makes a way to the Father.“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)The Son is not satisfied to bring us only to himself. He is not acting independently of the Father, but rather accomplishing the Father’s plan, and making a way to bring us back to the Father.
- The Son submits to the Father.“For I have come… not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (John 6:38)The relationships within the Trinity mean that the Father has authority over the Son. The Son submits to the will of the Father. The Father initiates and the Son accomplishes the Father’s plan. Authority and submission do not affect the divinity or the worth of either person, but they are part of the relationships that comprise the Trinity.
THINK IT THROUGH
Where do you see the Father initiating and the Son accomplishing in:
- The Second Coming
The Holy Spirit
When Jesus was preparing his disciples for a time when he would no longer be with them in bodily form, he explained to them that they would actually be better off as a result because he would send them the Holy Spirit, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7) Jesus also taught that the Spirit is given by the Father. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever.” (John 14:6)
The Father and the Son are both involved in the sending of the Holy Spirit. Once again, the Father plays the role of the initiator and the Son is the accomplisher. The Spirit is sent from the Father and sent by the Son. “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (John 14:26)
THINK IT THROUGH
- Why did Jesus say that it would be to the disciples’ advantage if he went away and sent them the Holy Spirit?
The Holy Spirit’s Role
The Holy Spirit relates to both the Father and the Son. We have seen that it is the Father who initiates, and that he does so by his Son, the accomplisher. This all happens through the Holy Spirit, who gives life and beauty to that which is accomplished.
The Holy Spirit is the breath of God that filled the lungs of the first humans. He raised Christ from the dead. He regenerates human souls and he gives gifts to the bride of Christ to make us holy.
Just like Jesus did not speak on his own account, neither will the Holy Spirit. He speaks what he hears. The Father has given all things to his Son, and the Spirit makes known that which belongs to the Son. When we say ‘everything is about Jesus’, we are reflecting the priorities of the Trinity, as the Father showcases his Son and the Spirit does not draw attention to himself, but instead seeks to glorify Jesus. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All the Father has in mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:13-15)
It is time to move beyond eggs and shamrocks. The Trinity is not supposed to be shrouded in mystery, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever…” (Deuteronomy 29:29). The Trinity is part of what God has revealed about himself in Scripture, and is ours forever.
God is not like H2O, he is a Father who initiates and sends, he is a Son who accomplishes and obeys, he is a Spirit who gives life and beautifies. He is a community of 3 persons. He has eternally been and eternally will be one God, who is three persons in loving community.
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:14)
- Do you think it would be accurate to describe Christians as ‘mono-theists’? Why/why not?
- Why do you think it matters that we understand the Trinity? In practical terms, what things in our lives would be different if God were not Trinity?
- In what ways are the different roles and relationships in the Trinity reflected in different kinds of human relationships? What can we learn from the way the Father, Son and Spirit fulfil their roles that can help us to fulfil our roles?