Every Christmas season we are confronted with the mystery of the Incarnation. As Athanasius put it, “The Son of God became the son of man so that sons of men could become sons of God.” Forgive the gender exclusivity of the quote, but, once you include the ladies, the sentiment expressed is bang on. God took on human nature so that we could, according to 2nd Peter, ‘become partakers in the divine nature.’
The astounding nature of the Incarnation also plunges us into the heart of another great mystery: the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. In this short article I discuss the Trinity because only a triune understanding of God will give us the correct categories to comprehend the astounding nature of the Incarnation.
A Foray into Flatland
A while back I wrote this short illustration:
You and I live in a three-dimensional world, four dimensions if you include time. For the purpose of this analogy, let us imagine we live in a two-dimensional world, like the old Mario world: There’s only up and down and side-to-side.
One day, an odd visitor arrived in Flatland. He claimed to be from a strange four-dimensional world far beyond the flat hills and far beyond the flat sun. He began to speak about cubes. The citizens of Flatland scratched their heads in befuddlement. “What’s a cube?” Our four-dimensional friend replied, “A cube is a square made up of six squares.”
Blank stares covered every flat face.
The philosophers of Flatland called a symposium. After much heated discussion, the wisest in the land concluded that such an idea was ridiculous. “What, after all, could it mean to say a cube is one square with six squares – how is that possible?”
Now, in a similar way, explaining the Trinity to us is like trying to communicate a cube to the folks in Flatland. They understand a square. We can comprehend a person. One cube with six squares and one God in three persons, however, are ideas that stretch us beyond the limits of our learning. But God isn’t restricted to our dimension and doesn’t experience the limitations we do.
This is why it is difficult for us to fully grasp the idea of the Trinity. Yet, Christians still continue to believe that there is one God who exists eternally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – one divine being, three distinct persons. The word Trinity is not mentioned in the Bible, but the idea is taught. It is concealed in the Old Testament, hinted at in the Old Testament, and revealed in the New Testament.
So in what follows we will look at the Biblical basis for the doctrine, why all analogies fall short, why the church taught the Trinity in the first place and why, when all is said and done, it is a mysteriously beautiful doctrine about the being and nature of God.
In Genesis 1, God says, ‘Let us make humankind in our image and likeness.” Let 'us'? There is a plurality there. We are not made in the image of angels, but in the image of God so many see a veiled reference to the Trinity here.
In Deuteronomy 6:4 it says the Lord your God is one. The word one is the Hebrew word echad and it can mean one that is many. For example, Adam and Eve were one flesh displaying unity and plurality. And, again, some theologians have sought a veiled reference to trinity here or understood this idea of 'oneness' to be compatible with the tri-unity of the Godhead.
In the New Testament we have the Trinity referenced in multiple places. For example, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” 2nd Corinthians 13:14 Or, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 28:19
And there are many other examples. So, first, the Trinity is Biblical.
All analogies of the Trinity fall short and, if taken seriously, inevitably lead to a view of God that the church has denounced as heretical and misleading. The Trinity is like an egg – one egg - shell, egg white and yolk. The Trinity is like a three-leafed clover. The Trinity is like water – water exists as a liquid, gas and solid (that is Modalism). The Trinity is like a person – one-person – body, soul and spirit – one and three working together in perfect unity. That last one is the best one, but they all fall short in the end because the Trinity is a mystery. It goes beyond reason without opposing it.
We may respond, ‘This is hard to understand!’ but that should not be shocking. As suggested in the Flatland story, we are talking about God – the infinite, eternal Creator of all. It is not surprising that our three-pound brains cannot unravel the mystery of God. Nabeel Quereshi, converted from Islam to Christianity, and has written on the Trinity. I like what he says here because it is both logical and humble:
“[God] is one being in three persons: Father, Son and Spirit. He’s more than able to exist like that because he is God. If we say God must only have one person, like humans, then we are making God in our image. Who are we to limit God? It is up to God to tell us who he is.”
The claim at the heart of Christianity is that God has revealed Himself as the triune God of scripture, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
A Mystery Revealed in History
The Trinity is a mystery revealed in history that forced itself on the first Christians. They believed in one God, the creator of all things. Then Jesus shows up in their midst and He says and does things that were only appropriate for God to say and do. Not only that, Jesus backed up His claims with God-sized miracles and a resurrection from the dead! Therefore, the first Jewish Christians decided that Jesus is the divine word, made flesh, God’s self-disclosure to humanity.
Then, shortly after Jesus left His disciples, they experienced the promised Holy Spirit, the continued presence of God’s love and nearness. When all was said and done, you had one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In some ways this process is like physicists discovering that light is both waves and particles. We don’t know how that is possible, but we have data for both, so we are just going to affirm both! One God in three persons, not quite sure how that works, but if we take Jesus seriously and the ongoing presence of God’s Spirit seriously, that is where we end up.
So the Trinity is Biblical, it is mysterious (it goes beyond reason without opposing it) and, lastly, it is beautiful.
The ancient church fathers spoke about the Trinity as a dance of love. And this is beautiful. How many of you believe that God is love in His very nature? Christians believe that God has love because God is love in His very essence. But love requires a plurality of persons. Someone to give love and someone to receive love; love is a relational word and it is the property of conscious persons. For God to be love in His very nature requires a plurality of persons, which the Trinity gives to us. God creates, not because God is lonely, but because God wants to invite creation to join in the dance of love that is apart of His very nature. That to me is so beautiful and incredibly moving to contemplate! So, again, the Trinity is Biblical, it is mysterious, and it is beautiful.
In conclusion, the theologian Dallas Willard was once asked, “What was God doing before he created the world?” And he said, “He was enjoying themselves.”
Bad grammar. Good theology.
Nabeel Quereshi, No God but One: Allah or Jesus? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016)