Thing #1 – The Trinity
In a surprising number of conversations over the years, the doctrine of the Trinity has been painted as a liability for my worldview. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Muslims, Jews, some Messianic Jews, and atheists and Bible skeptics have all pointed to the doctrine of the Trinity as a dumb idea.
I suppose I grew up thinking that a New Testament Bible believer had to believe in the Trinity by default: clearly the Bible taught that there is only one God (monotheism,) yet He also clearly reveals Himself as 3 persons in the NT. So I felt stuck with this peculiar, “illogical” idea of a monotheistic God who is also 3 persons. But He’s still one God. But He’s 3 persons…It seemed more like an idea I was cornered into believing rather than a belief for which there was good reason. In fact, from other believers I often heard the excuse that the Trinity is a “mystery” that our finite minds can’t comprehend, or whatever.
In college, one of my professors in particular loved talking about the absurdity of Trinitarian belief because he thought it supported his contention that religious belief is irrational. He loved the explanation that the doctrine of the Trinity was a mystery. Of course it was. “It’s a mystery” is what religious people say when their beliefs are irrational.
But I contend that biblical faith is rational (click here.) Furthermore, I now see that the biblical concept of a Triune God is one of the coolest ideas in the universe. It’s an idea that makes me happy every day. I would love to briefly tell you why.
But first let’s address a couple of commonly stated and easily dismissed criticisms:
Objection #1: The doctrine of the Trinity is illogical.
It’s not illogical. If I were to say, “God is one God, and three Gods,” that would be illogical. But the Trinity doctrine states, “God is one essence, and three persons.” One “what”, three “whos.” That’s not illogical, it’s just unique.
Objection #2: The word Trinity does not appear in the Bible.
I’m sorry for even taking up space with this, but Jehovah’s Witnesses have argued this so many times that I have to mention it. The words “totalitarianism,” “anti–Semitism,” and “home brew“ also do not appear in the Bible, but we see these things described in the Bible nonetheless. It’s not incorrect to call them what they are. The fact that some theologians came up with a term to describe a concept presented in the Bible does not mean that the theologians made up the concept as well. They were simply labeling a biblical reality.
Now…onto the coolness.
The freaking profundity of God’s triune nature.
Here’s what I’m so excited about: The fact that YHWH is a trinity means that He is by nature relational, loving, and good.
Now you may be thinking, “Um…I think I’ve already heard that God is loving and good.” YES, but my point is that God’s triune nature is what makes it possible for a personal, eternal, preexistent God to BE loving and good. Allow me to explain each aspect separately:
YHWH is relational
The fact that the Judeo-Christian scriptures describe an uncreated Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existing as one God means that God pre-existed, in community, before there was a creation. This means that in His essential nature, God is and always has been relational. Is there any scriptural support for this idea? There is. Jesus spoke of the relationship He had with the Father before His incarnation (Jn 17:5,24; Jn 8:58; Gen 1:26.) He speaks of being loved by the Father (Jn 5:20; 17:23), being one with Him (Jn 8:19; 10:30; 17:21,22), submitting to Him (Jn 4:34; 5:19, 30), and being sent by Him (Jn 5:24,30; Jn 7: 28,29; Jn 8:42.)
By extension, since we bear the image of God, we are relational too.
YHWH is loving
Love has always existed, and God has always existed in loving relationship, even before there was a creation. His triune nature makes this possible. It is helpful to compare contrasting monotheistic concepts of God: For example a preexistent God that is singular only, such as that described in Rabbinical Judaism or Islam, could only be potentially loving before creation existed. He would’ve been alone in His preexistence, having no object for His theoretical love. Love that is unexpressed is incomplete
In keeping with this, it is interesting that the New Testament explicitly states that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8.) We don’t find this statement in the Koran. The Koran says “God is loving,” as this would be possible once there was a creation – an object for divine love. But the God of Islam could not be loving in His preexistent nature, nor could he be relational. Nor does the Koran describe God this way, or suggest we can have a relationship with God. Islam is not about relationship; it’s about obeying God and hopefully getting rewarded.
But in keeping with the Judeo-Christian God’s relational nature, the whole point of God sending a Savior was to restore humanity’s broken relationship with God. After the coming of Jesus the apostle Paul teaches in graphic terms that the followers of Jesus now have a new relationship as sons and daughters of God (Gal 4:4-7.) This kind of thinking is generally offensive, even blasphemous, to Muslims. Certainly the idea that God could have a son is flatly rejected. The God of the Koran is unknowable. The God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures has made Himself known to us (Gal 4:8,9; Jn 1:18.)
Furthermore, God has designed the most fundamental of human relationships – the family – to reflect His triune, loving nature. Monogamous, heterosexual marriage is (or was at least intended by God to be) a reflection of the unity-in-diversity in love found in the Godhead. The Bible is explicit about this (cf Eph 5:31,32 & Jn 17:20-24.) At creation when marriage is first defined, the aim of the marriage relationship is something called “oneness” (Gen 2:24.) At every level the God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures envisions unity and loving relationship, freely chosen.
YHWH is good
Without going into elaborate detail here, allow me to posit the idea that part of the nature of “good” includes that which is self-sustaining and independent in and of itself. Conversely, evil is merely a perversion of that which is good, and requires the existence of good in order to exist. So evil is always parasitic. For example, the effectiveness of a lie depends upon a context where truth-telling is expected. If everyone always lied, lying would lose its meaning. Likewise, adultery can only exist where there is such a thing as marital sexual fidelity, and so on. Similarly, in the Bible, Satan is not an equal, evil counterpart to God. He is a fallen creature that was once good. Likewise demons are described as fallen spiritual beings (angels.) Evil is innately inferior to good because it needs good in order to exist. By nature good is creative and life enhancing; evil is destructive and disrupts communion, bringing death.
So the preexistent nature of God means that He is necessarily good, because only that which is good can be complete in and of itself. God does not need us. He did not create us because He was lonely, or bored, or static, or had broken all of His other toys. Relationship, love, and good all existed in perfection in YHWH before there was a created physical reality. In creating us, God was apparently letting us in on the awesomeness of the possibility of loving relationship. If you consider what the most fulfilling aspect of your life is, I would guess that it has to do with loving relationship. On the other hand, if you feel there is a gaping hole in your life, I would guess that what you feel is lacking has to do with loving relationship.
In keeping with this, recall the creation story. God looked at everything He had created and pronounced it “very good” (Gen 1:31.) With one exception. God looked at Adam and said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18.) Isn’t that interesting? Aloneness is not good. Even with God as his companion, Adam was a physical being and thus needed a physical complement to fully experience and express loving relationship. And in the terms described above, the human race could not be self-sustaining apart from such a relationship as the oneness in marriage would result in life.
In the same way, God has never been alone.
So the monotheistic concept of the Trinity, unique among the religions of the world, turns out not to be a liability after all. In fact, it makes possible and comprehensible the existence of a relational, loving and good God. Regardless of whether or not you believe the Judeo-Christian scriptures, it’s worth knowing that they are internally consistent, and that the real possibility exists that there is a good and loving Creator who invites you into relationship.
(Thanks to Pastor John Meyer for insights on God’s relational nature.)