As a teenager I read through the whole Bible over the course of a few years. It took me a while to slog through some of the more obscure books—the Levitical laws and the prophets—a lot of the Old Testament stuff. The New Testament was different though. The Gospels and the book of Acts were these riveting narratives and the Epistles—of Paul and Peter and John and whoever else—contained this complicated philosophy I was only beginning to understand.
Well if you go back and look at my old Bibles (either an NKJV or an NASB) in many New Testament passages you will find the symbol above scribbled all over the margins.
It's the symbol for the Trinity. It's meant to convey continuity, interconnectivity, and oneness and yet distinctiveness, separation, and individuality. It's intentionally contradictory and paradoxical and I'll get to unpacking that some more in a bit. The reason I kept putting the symbol down in the margins of my Bible was a mixture of fear and determination. I had been told over and over again "You know, the word Trinity isn't even in the Bible?" by people who thought they were really smart—most of them even Christian people. I mean, what if "The Trinity" wasn't in the Bible? So I passionately wanted to prove them wrong—not about the word Trinity itself—but I wanted a way to show the Trinity as a concept, a truth, an account of the way things are, was written into the Bible at every turn, was interwoven into its very fabric as an essential fibre.
In my reading what I found was very encouraging. Throughout the New Testament especially, the Trinity was everywhere. At the Baptism of Jesus (heck, at his conception and birth), at Jesus' healings, in the resurrection, in the entirety of the Gospel of John. And then there were Paul's letters, which contain numerous passages relating how the work of the Father interrelates to the Son and the Spirit. There was no need to fear—the Trinity was simply the way God moved in the world, simply the way God was, is, and will be.
Of course (of course!) "trinity" was not in the Bible itself as a vocab word—it did not need to be. The witness of the Church, that is, Church History, gave us "trinity" as a word. The Church, through its councils and prolific early theologians, hashed out (or came to define) over the course of hundreds of years what the Scriptures were speaking about the work of Almighty God displayed through his son and carried out through his Spirit. To claim "the Trinity isn't in the Bible" and therefore is not a truth because the word is not there, is like saying "Pangea never existed" because we never found proof of a prehistoric country called Pangea in the annals or ruins of any ancient civilization. We should not get hung up on the name of something that was given after the fact (ex post facto), but instead focus on what actually happened, what actually was, and perhaps what still is.
"How could Pangea ever existed? There's never
even been a country with that name!"
And so, it was evident to me that according to the Biblical record, The Trinity was a thing, a real thing the Bible kept describing over and over. It was all part of the story. It was not exactly an argument, as "the Trinity is this and this and you find it here and there and here's why!" but more of a bearing witness of the way things simply are. It was evident in the Old Testament, but it was all brought into focus in the Testament about Jesus, the "new" testament. And it was probably in verses just like the ones we read today where I put my little symbol, three interlocking semi-circles, three separate points flowing into each other.
Like in Romans 8:12-17, the last part of which says "The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him." Notice how everything is so interrelated in that verse: 1.) We are children of God, because 2.) we are heirs with Christ and since Christ is the Son of God we get the same inheritance he gets, and 3.) we have come to know all this because the Holy Spirit is telling us, bearing witness in our spirits.
So a lot of us—myself included—are always caught up in asking "what is the Trinity?" or how do we define it, but here in a verse like this we get to see simply how the Trinity works: We come to belong to God as his children through Jesus Christ and we come to know this through the Spirit. There is a Divine movement there, God working as one in three distinct but not separate ways.
In another passage, from the Gospel of John, 3:1-17, we have Jesus responding to Nicodemus, this learned man of the law who cannot understand how Jesus can perform the miracles he does or say the things he does unless it comes from God. Jesus says “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” In this passage we have a different perspective, for Son himself, while he was on earth is speaking. The Son himself is giving us the message that in order for us to "enter the kingdom of God" we must be born again by the Spirit of God, and that the Spirit is the unquenchable uncontainable force of God on earth. Those of us who are in Christ are born of the Spirit and living into the Kingdom of God. Again, this is not so much a definition as it is a description of how God moves.
When I was in seminary my professors were always fond of reminding us that no model or metaphor of the Trinity was perfect, that they all broke down at some point. And there are lots of models, which we'll get to in a minute. But the reason no metaphor worked completely was it could never describe what is a revealed mystery. Each metaphor could hint at one aspect of the truth but never fully encapsulate that which is, the Triune Godhead, the Other who created and rules over the world and yet dwells intimately with us, who is three unseparated persons, working together in distinctness.
With what remains to say I want to help us do some defining of the Trinity by unpacking some of the metaphors, but more than anything, especially more than getting the exact right definition down, I want us as a people to plunge into the glorious mystery of the triune God. It is a kind of knowledge that goes far beyond merely getting our facts straight (which I actually do think is quite important, but a bit beyond the scope of what I can say today), and is instead a Knowing to the depths of our being, that to Know God is to know God as Triune, Father, Son, and Spirit. I want to emphasize the word plunge, for I think it captures the feeling I want us to strive for, that we could leap into the greatness of God, knowing our leap is into his fullness and love and all the good he has ever planned for us. Many many more Scriptures bear witness to this and I would encourage us all to pay attention to them as we go throughout the Church year. Learn to look for all the ways God works as Trinity in the Scriptures we read together in the coming months. It will always be present in some way.
Now to the metaphors, some of which are silly, but all of which give some insight into what the Trinity is. In actuality, I want to make an argument that the metaphors/models/illustrations are important, for in talking about the Trinity we Christians are not merely describing how God is functional to us, we believe this is how God in fact is, how he exists in his person. What we are trying to do is wrap our heads around how something can be three things at once, one thing in 3 ways.
And so, the Trinity is like:
Some of the classic models to start with:
One man who is simultaneously a son, a husband, and a father
A braid of 3 cords
Height, width, and depth
Past, present, and future
A 3 leaf clover (via St. Patrick)
A pretzel! (there's actually some historical warrant for this
3-in-1 Shampoo! (shampoo, conditioner, bodywash)
An egg, shell, whites, and yolk
The 3 states of water, solid, liquid, gas
3 colors occupying the same space:
A 3 note chord:
Perhaps my favorite (though still limited) analogy comes from theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie in his book Beholding the Glory where he compares the Trinity to a 3 note chord—3 distinct notes struck together, playing in sequence with each other, together as one, intermingling, and yet still existing as 3 individual notes. Now, imagine that chord has been playing throughout all of eternity. Begbie says: "What could be more apt than to speak of the Trinity as a three-note-resonance of life, mutually indwelling, without mutual exclusion and yet without merger, each occupying the same ‘space,’ yet recognizably and irreducibly distinct, mutually enhancing and establishing each other? To speak of three strings mutually resonating instantly introduces a dynamism ... far truer to the trinitarian, living God of the New Testament.”
But here is where the analogy breaks down. God, though unchanging, is never static. God is eternal movement and once he first created he has always been moving on behalf of his creation. So the Father, Spirit, and Son cannot be one long held out chord as they have created an entire masterful symphony together and we are part of that symphony. In other words, the chord metaphor is not dynamic enough, it only explains so much. It is paradoxical to be sure, for God never changes and is indeed like an eternally struck 3-note chord, and yet that chord is movement itself, it is God's fullness and activity.
But now here is what is incredibly helpful about the chord illustration: visually, we have a great deal of trouble understanding how 3 objects can inhabit the same space at same time. It makes no sense. If I have 3 Lego blocks there is no way I can make those blocks be in the exact same space as each other without first obliterating the blocks. Visually and spatially they can be really close to each other, but never one and never in the exact same space. They are either completely separate or completely one, never both at the same time. Sound, however is entirely different. Listen to 3 notes played together. They inhabit the same aural space. Indeed, a sound could be said to fill an entire space, very much unlike something visual. They overlap but they do not crowd each other out. They remain separate, that is, we are able to pick out each individual note, and yet they come together to make a complete whole.
And this is how the many models/symbols/metaphors/illustrations/analogies can be helpful (though limited) in understanding the Trinity. There are other well established symbols however that use words instead of the visible or audible.
So, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are:
Equal to each other
Have always existed simultaneously together (co-eternal)
1 God but 3 persons (3 "who's" and 1 "what")
In attempting to understand the Trinity, in many ways we are never supposed to "get" it, but to instead live into the mysterious, paradoxical tension that is the greatness of God as revealed through Scripture, Creator God, the Son who gave his life for us, and the Spirit who fills us (and the whole world). As another blog has put it: "I often tell my students that if they say, “I get it!” or “Now I understand!” that they are more than likely celebrating the fact that they are a heretic! When you understand the biblical principles and let the tensions remain without rebuttal, then you are orthodox. When you solve the tension, you have most certainly entered into one of the errors that we seek to avoid."
The main thing I want to emphasize in all this is not the formulas or symbols themselves. I do not want us to get the formulas right but get God himself wrong. The great problem with understanding the Trinity is that we ourselves are limited in our understanding—we can only comprehend so much. So what it really comes down to is how God has revealed himself to us, and what the Church down through the ages says is God has revealed himself as 1 God in 3 persons.
One Biblical scholar (Gordon Fee, in this book) has said that any talk of the Trinity must first begin with the Incarnation, that is, with God coming to earth as the man Jesus Christ. It is through Jesus that we see the Father and see the works of the Father on display. It is also through Jesus that we receive the Holy Spirit. We know God is with us because Jesus was with us and will return to us again. We also know God moves in a tri-unity because Jesus told as much and showed us it was so. God sent him, had him baptized, taught and performed miracles, forgave sin, died, was resurrected, then ascended into heaven, and then poured his Holy Spirit out on the Church. We have seen God move in this way and our prayer should be that he continues to move on us in this way. In fact, our prayer should be the same as the prophet Isaiah from our passage today (Isaiah 6:1-8), who after seeing God revealed in overwhelming glory, then received a call from God: "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" He responds with the simplest answer possible: "Here am I, send me"
If we have seen and known the Triune God in any sense (I certainly, have never seen God revealed in all his glory, but I believe through the Holy Spirit I know God and the Son of God) we are to be his witnesses in this world. The same Spirit that goes throughout the whole earth is in us and is empowering us to do the work of God on earth, to bring about the Kingdom. It is the Kingdom Jesus spoke of, the Kingdom Father God intends for his creation. Knowing this God, may our prayer be to be sent ourselves and make God and his Kingdom known all the more.
Online Resources on the Trinity:
Understanding the Trinity by Peter S. Williams
St. Patrick Was Not a Heretic But His Analogies Are Another Story
Training Little Heretics
The Trinity is like 3-in-1 Shampoo and Other Stupid Statements
Finding the Trinity in Music
Related PostConsumer Articles:
A Pessimistic Lenten Reflection: Living in Denial
We Used to Wait—A Very Special Arcade Fire Advent Reflection (Part 1)
We Have a Problem With Authority—A Reflection on Christ the King Sunday
Reflections on the Death of Moses