|EXPLORING CHRISTIANITY - THE TRINITY||
LIFE AFTER DEATHChristianity's Hope & Challenge.
Understanding the Trinity
The traditional view of God that has been held by Christians for the last 2,000 years is that he exists as three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit* - not that there are three separate Gods, nor that he is one God wearing three different hats (traditionally called Modalism) - but that there is only one God who exists as three distinct Persons. This view has its roots in the Bible and was spelled out in credal form by the church of the fourth century.
It is not surprising that this view of God is confusing to many! Are Christians required to live as the White Queen did in Alice Through the Looking Glass, who made it a practice to believe six impossible things before breakfast? It doesn't fit our understanding of mathematics, nor our sense of logic. The Athanasian Creed, named after Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century, who fought for the views it expresses, has these words, "The Father incomprehensible, The Son incomprehensible and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible...Not three incomprehensibles ... but... one incomprehensible." As theologian Alister McGrath points out, many are sorely tempted to add, "The whole thing incomprehensible!" Actually, the word "incomprehensible" in this creed does not mean that they cannot be understood at all, but rather that they cannot be grasped by mere unaided human intelligence. They cannot be pinned down by mere mortals.
The purpose of this booklet is to make some sense of this view of God. In doing so there are two important points that should be made at the beginning, as these will have considerably bearing on how we approach the problem.
First, this is not a mere philosophical question - not if we are talking about a God who really is there. The answers we come up with will severely impact our lives - how we relate to God, our view of ourselves, our values, our convictions about the meaning and purpose of life, our understanding of death - unless, of course, you simply choose to ignore this God and go your own way. For this reason you may find it a useful exercise to pray and ask him to guide you in your search for the truth. That is, if you can do it honestly!
Second, if this God really exists he must be a little bigger, a little more intelligent, a little more powerful, and probably a lot more good, than we are! After all, he is responsible for this universe. This means that if we are to know anything at all about this God, it will only be as he chooses to make himself known to us. Now that is perfectly logical. Nothing could be more so. After all, he lives in dimensions that we have never experienced. And if it is true that he wants us to have some understanding of him, and longs to have a loving relationship with us, then it is logical that he will make himself known to us, at least if we are willing that he should do so.
Now Christians have always believed that this is what God has actually done. He has spoken through people to whom he chose to reveal himself in past ages, and finally he has spoken most clearly by entering this world himself in the person of Jesus. He has seen to it that we have the record of these revelations in the writings we call the Bible. The Bible itself puts it this way: "Long ago in many ways and at many times God's prophets spoke his message to our ancestors. But now at last God sent his Son to bring his message to us. God created the universe by his Son, and everything will someday belong to the Son. God's Son has all the brightness of God's own glory and is like him in every way" (Hebrews 1:1-3). Not only has he revealed himself through Jesus, and the records we have of Jesus in the Bible, but he is also willing to reveal himself to us personally if we really want to know him.
Christians also believe that God has revealed all we need to know about himself. His purpose in so doing is that we might develop the kind of relationship with him that will enable us to live the sort of productive and satisfying lives he desires for us. There is much we will never know. At least not in this life. "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever... " (Deuteronomy 29:29). If we did understand all about God he would not be God. Augustine of Hippo, in the fourth century, wrote 15 volumes on the Trinity, making some of the most profound statements ever made on the subject. However, I am sure he would have been among the first to admit he was barely scratching the surface. God has given us minds, however. If we are willing to use them to explore those things he wants us to know about himself he will reveal those things we need.
In order to test this claim of Christians, that God has so revealed himself to the human race, then the obvious place to start is to look at the written records to find out what they tell us about him, and then to consider whether this makes any sense. That is the approach I will be taking in this booklet. First I will look at the Bible, focusing on the New Testament, as this is where most of the teaching about Jesus and the Holy Spirit is contained. That is Part 1: What the Bible says about the triune God. Then I will explore the question: Does it makes sense? That is Part 2. If you should find that you get a little bogged down in Part 1, then don't hesitate to skim this section and move on to Part 2. You can always come back to Part 1 and explore it in more detail later, maybe even with a modern translation of the Bible handy to check out the passages mentioned.
*Though I will use male terms for the Persons of the Trinity throughout this booklet, as the Bible does, this does not mean that God himself is male. God encompasses all the characteristics of male and female as we understand them. The emphasis is not on his gender, but on his personhood and the relationships that flow from that. Unfortunately we don't have a personal pronoun that expresses one without the other.
Understanding the Trinity