This article was written to accompany the ‘The Trinity‘ hangout.
- In practical terms, what would be different about our faith and our lives if God were not Trinity?
Aristotle’s God & The Bible’s
When you think about God, the conclusions you reach are often directly related to the starting points from which you begin.
Aristotle once said,
“God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration, continuous and eternal belong to God, for this is God. It is clear then from what has been said that there is a substance, which is eternal and unmovable and separate from sensible things.” (Aristotle)
According to this Greek view, God is a substance. If this is our starting point, it can be challenging to perceive three persons from this ‘substance’.
A much better starting point is the Biblical one. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in loving relationships. The question is not how to get three persons from a ‘substance’, but rather what it means for these three persons to be ‘one God’. The answer is in the unity of loving relationships.
God exists as a plurality of persons in loving relationships. He made humanity in his image. By creating people to be ‘male’ and ‘female’, he made distinct persons who could be united in relationship. Humanity was truly made to be like God.
THINK IT THROUGH
- Are people today more or less ‘like God’ than Adam and Eve were in Eden?
- Are Christians today more or less ‘like God’ than Adam and Eve were in Eden?
- Will people in the New Creation be more or less ‘like God’ than Adam and Eve were in Eden?
Believing the Lie
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden”?’ And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.”’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” (Genesis 3:1-6)
When Satan tempted Adam and Eve to sin, his pitch was that if they ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, their eyes would be opened and they would ‘be like God’.
It would be easy to assume that this desire was a bad thing and that the cause of Adam and Eve’s problems was that they somehow wanted to become God-like.
This is not true. The cause of Adam and Eve’s problems was not that they wanted to be like God, but that Satan is a liar (Jesus even refers to him as the father of lies in John 8:44) and he deceived them.
Turning away from God did not make Adam and Eve become like God. They gained experiential knowledge of evil. They gained independent autonomy to set their own course with no thought for any other. They gained power to exalt themselves. None of these things made them like God.
God is Trinity. He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in perfect community. At his heart, God is all about relationships.
Before they gave into Satan’s temptation, Adam and Eve were already like God in the most important way possible. They were made in God’s image and they enjoyed unblemished relationships with each other, with the Father, with the Son and with the Holy Spirit. They participated in the community of God.
As a consequence of turning away from God, these relationships became broken. Instead of enjoying fellowship with God, Adam and Eve began to evade him, “And they heard the sounds of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” (Genesis 3:8) and they found that access to his presence was ultimately barred. “The Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:23-24). Moreover, Adam and Eve’s relationship with one another was also damaged. “…Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16). By the next generation, this breakdown of relationships had turned to murder.
The most fundamental thing about God is relationships of love. “God is love” (1 John 4:8) By listening to the serpent, Adam and Eve lost these relationships.
Satan was exactly wrong. Adam and Eve didn’t become like God. They became as unlike God as it is possible to be. Cut off from relationships, filled with selfishness and pride, cherishing power above love. Despite the promise, they ended up nothing like God. They believed the lies and the consequences were tragic.
- Do you think that the idea of ‘deification’ (being made like God) is an appropriate way of describing the Christian life? Why/why not?
The idea of deification is largely absent from modern theological dialogue. It is easy to see why. It is important not to blur the distinction between God and man. God is unique and there are many senses in which he is completely set apart from everything else. We must take care in talking about ‘becoming like God’ not to cross this line.
Nevertheless, the idea of becoming ‘deified’ or ‘like God’ was an important one for theological heavyweights of past generations. Athanasius (296-373AD) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274AD) are two of the most highly revered theologians in church history:
“For he [Jesus] was made man, so that we might be made God.” (Athanasius)
“The only-begotten son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” (Thomas Aquinas)
This only makes sense with a Trinitarian understanding of God. If God was, in essence, the ‘substance’ that Aristotle referred to then it would be blasphemous to talk about people being deified.
However, if God is about a community of persons in perfect relationships, and we are brought into that community, then (in the most significant sense) we are made like God.
Being made like God isn’t about power or prestige. It is about participation in the community of God. This is surely what Peter had in mind when he referred to believers as “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
This is the exact opposite of what happened at the fall. The Serpent conned Adam and Eve into thinking that they would be like God if they broke relationships and instead sought power and autonomy, and they became less like God. In salvation, the reverse happens; a person humbles themselves and is re-established in relationship with Father, Son, Holy Spirit and the global community of God. In doing so, that person is becoming ‘like God’.
THINK IT THROUGH
- In light of this, what does it mean to become ‘Christ-like’? (You may find Philippians 2:1-11 helpful in thinking about this)
The night before Jesus was crucified, he prayed for his followers what has become known as the ‘High Priestly prayer’. In this prayer, he weaves together the themes of his eternal relationship with his Father, his ministry on the earth and his mission going forwards. Towards the end of the prayer, he says “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me, I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17:20-23)
On an initial reading of these verses, it can be difficult to keep track of who Jesus is talking about at any given moment. He is exploring the relationships between his Father, himself, the disciples and all who believe through them. Jesus is praying that the relationship that he has with his Father is opened up to his followers. Just as the Father is in Jesus, Jesus is in his followers. He prays for oneness in the church in the same way that there is oneness in the Trinity. The idea is for there to be an intertwining of relationships between the Father, the Son, the disciples, future believers and so on.
As we drawn in to follow Jesus as his disciples, we are drawn into such a depth of relationships with Father, Son, Spirit and each other that we are participators in the community relationships that the Trinity have enjoyed for all eternity: sons and daughters of the Father, brothers and sisters of Christ, brothers and sisters of each other, temples of the Holy Spirit.
This understanding of God as three persons in community and the Christian life as being drawn into this community has many implications in various areas of our lives. The rest of this chapter will explore some of these implications.
- Try to list at least ten different implications of this understanding of God for different areas of life.
True Life Is Not Found In Power But Relationships
If God is Trinity (He is), and humans were created in God’s image (we were), then true life is to be found as we live out that image. For eternity, God’s existence has been one of loving, mutually glorifying relationships, and it is such relationships that provide the context for life.
This stands in contrast to much that we see in our culture. We speak of a ‘dog eat dog’ world, where it is ‘every man for himself’. Power is seen as success, and community is relegated to second place behind an individualism that insists that ‘every man’s home is his castle’, and fights to defend our ‘personal space’.
Yet the Bible is clear that we are created for community. John insists that “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light…” (1 John 2:9-10), and Paul explains in Ephesians 2&3 that it is in creating one people for God out of those formerly hostile to one another that the manifold wisdom of God is made known.
What practical differences would it make if relationships like those in the Trinity were to characterise:
- Our families
- Our churches
- Our nations
What things can we personally do to move these relationships in the right direction?
Worship Is About Participation
There are different ways to think of worship. For example, we could speak of worship in terms of devotion, of sacrifice, and of lifestyle.
Primarily, worship is about relating to God, and when this is missing the worship offered is vain and hollow. There are several occasions in the Old Testament where God challenges those who bring burnt offerings, but lack love for him. This defies the point of the offering. “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6). The same theme is expressed in the New Testament, as Jesus challenges the Pharisees’ offerings in Mark 7 and as Paul declares, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:3)
Love is at the heart of the Trinity, and love is at the heart of genuine worship. Worship is about relating to God and participating in the relationships of the Trinity. As the Father lifts up and honours the Son, so we join in exalting him. As the Son glorifies the Father, we too give him glory. As the Spirit makes known the things of God to draw focus to Jesus, so we give expression to the gifts that the Spirit has given us for that very purpose. As we worship, we are drawn into the relationships of the Trinity itself.
We Each Have a Different Relationship With God
There are many things that are common in the relationships that each and every believer has with God. He is our Father, our saviour, our Lord and our maker. Being brought into a relationship with God will necessarily include these features.
This truth is crucial, but it should not lead us to think that God calls every Christian into a ‘cut-and-paste’ relationship with himself. By nature, a relationship is a two way process. Participating in a community means genuinely engaging ourselves in it, and the fact that each of us has different personalities, interests and temperaments to bring to the table means that our relationships with God will each be slightly different to reflect what each of us brings. Our individuality was both known and formed by God in our mother’s womb, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance…” (Psalm 139:13-16) and God delights in relating to us in community as the unique individuals that he has created us to be.
Our status doesn’t change, nor does God’s love for us, but just as a Father can relate in different ways to two children he loves equally, so God relates to each us in unique ways, When Jesus called Peter to follow him he used a cheesy metaphor about being fishers of men. With Levi, he did it differently and simply called him to follow, whereas in Zacchaeus’ case he invited himself for dinner.
John was known as the disciple who Jesus loved. Abraham was called a friend of God and David was known as man after God’s own heart. There would be truth in applying any of these descriptions to any of the men, yet the way God speaks of them is particularly apt. Specific truths are emphasised that particularly reflect the relationship each man had with God. Each was unique and each had a unique relationship with God.
THINK IT THROUGH
- What are some of the unique features of your relationship with God?
Unity or Uniformity?
The Trinity is not the Father, the Father and the Father. It is the Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit.
The three persons are united, but they are still distinct. They are together, but they are not the same. The Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Spirit. The Spirit is not the Father.
When God created humanity in his image, he did not create ‘male and male’ or ‘female and female’ but ‘male and female’. It is by being different but together that we reflect God’s image.
God’s people were never supposed to be all the same. A ‘Christian culture’ where everybody talks, dresses and makes music in the same way is not God’s design. This is uniformity. In contrast, we are called to truly reflect the Trinity in being diversity in unity. Distinct individuals, united in loving relationships and community.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating and various kinds of tongues.” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 27-28)
We are not called to be identical. We are called to be together.
Your Story Matters
The implication of existing as diverse persons in community, just like God, is that each of us has a unique story and that those stories matter.
God relates to each one of us in a unique way, and so a testimony is a story of God’s interactions with a unique individual to draw that person into community.
For one man, his story was how he was blind but could now see. For another man, his story was how God had been faithful in helping him to overcome lions and bears. The stories are different because the people are different.
Each of us has a story, and our stories are about things that God has done with us that have never been directly replicated in anybody else.
God draws each of us to participate in community with the Trinity. Our stories are worth telling.
- What is your story of how God has drawn you into community with himself?
- What are some of the things that should be the same in all Christians and churches? What are some of the things that should be different? Make a list for each.
- In what ways does our worship reflect a participation in the relationships of the Trinity? Are there ways that we could ensure that it does so more?