What We Believe: God (Part 4)
“The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.”
If you asked most Christians, maybe even most people who have heard of Christianity, what the single most difficult teaching to understand is, you’d probably get an overwhelming consensus that it is the doctrine of the Trinity. The statement of the doctrine is simple, and this article gives it in a clear and concise form. What is hard to understand is what it means to worship one God who is three distinct Persons but only one essence. Was human beings, we have no mental category for such an idea.
The doctrine of the Trinity has been such a vexing issue for some throughout the history of the church that it has led to many teachings that deny its reality. Some think the three Persons are just different modes of God revealing Himself, not fully distinct persons. Others teach that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are actually subordinate gods, not one in essence with the Father. Still others simply deny the doctrine altogether, and believe that Jesus was a man adopted by God as the Son and that the Holy Spirit is just the power of God in action. Each of these ideas come from attempts to grasp the doctrine of God and of the Trinity in a way that makes sense to humanity.
The divine Trinity stands in contrast to the teachings about God or the gods in other religions. Judaism and Islam teach the absolute unity of God; they do not see any way that God can be “divided” into three Persons and still be one God. Religions like Hinduism have no problem with the concept of more than one god, but each of these gods is a fully separate and distinct essence as well as person. Many Eastern religions have a very impersonal conception of the ultimate One, which may emanate in a number of distinct forms in our current world, but which will ultimately reclaim its absolute oneness. None of these religions can accept the Christian formulation of the Trinity.
Many point out that the term “Trinity” is not found in the Bible, and they are right. However, the concept is found in a number of passages (such as Matthew 3: 16-17; 28:19-20; 2 Corinthians 13:14; 1 Peter 1:2). There is a sense in which the doctrine could be said to have developed from the understanding of the apostles and the Biblical writers, who understood the Jewish concept of God yet accepted both Jesus and the Holy Spirit as God. The lack of a specific term does not make a doctrine unbiblical; other terms not found in the Bible, such as inerrancy, sacrament/ordinance, omnipotence, and omniscience, are also used by theologians to describe Biblical teachings.
As a seminary student, I searched, studied, and thought hard and often of how to understand the Trinity and explain it to people. As an older minister now, I am not only comfortable with the idea of mysteriousness of the Trinity, but I actually have come to believe that it is necessary that God be beyond our human understanding in order for Him to be God. If we could grasp the essence of God, that would make Him like us, only with more power. We would believe God to be the ultimate expression of everything we as humans hope to be, but not as someone far beyond our conception. In a real sense, only a God who is beyond our human understanding is worthy of acceptance as God.
The fact that God is beyond our ability to fully grasp does not mean that God is totally inexplicable or impossible to understand at any level. The Bible gives us His own revelation of Himself, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is, of course, something we can state and believe, drawing from the teaching of Scripture, even if we can’t figure out just exactly how all of that works. (I’ll even go further for myself-I don’t believe that we’ll ever fully grasp the essence of God, even in Heaven, and that’s a good thing.) We are called on to believe in God as He is revealed in His Word, and to have faith that goes beyond what we as limited, finite humans can grasp with our limited, finite minds.
The doctrine of the Trinity is truly a mystery taught to us in Scripture, but that very teaching reveals a God who is beyond us and worthy of our worship. At the same time, as we will see, the Bible teaches us that this immense, infinite God is also involved in our world and in our lives, and wants us to be a part of His eternal family. Far from being a hindrance to our faith, the doctrine of the Trinity should encourage us that our God is indeed One worthy of our faith, our praise, and our obedience.