The Shield of the Trinity

The Bible teaches that God is the Father, Son and Spirit. And this is not a trivial matter. It is vital to understanding who Jesus is, what God’s love is, and what the gospel is all about.

But the concept of the Trinity is not easy to comprehend. There is oneness – one God; and there is threeness – Father, Son, and Spirit. How are we supposed to reconcile this oneness and threeness?

A common way to try to wrap our minds around the Trinity is to use illustrations or analogies. Just as one egg has three parts, yoke/white/shell, the one God is Father/Son/Spirit. Or, an apple is made up of its core, its peel, and its flesh, and God is made up of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Such illustrations do a mediocre job of illustrating oneness and threeness, but they do a terrible job of illustrating God. And the reason is simple. Apples and eggs are material and are composed of parts. God is immaterial and is not composed of parts.

To understand why this is such a crucial point, consider the very first verse of the Bible. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). This is the great divide in Scripture – Creator and creation. This rich doctrine claims more than that God brought the world into existence. It also means that He sustains it in existence moment by moment (Colossians 1:17). God made the world and keeps the world in being.

But this also means that God cannot be composed of parts. Why not? Consider this illustration. If you buy a toy for your child (or yourself!) for Christmas and the box says, “some assembly required,” that tells you that what’s in the box are pieces that are not yet a toy. So these pieces exist before the toy itself exists, and these pieces require someone to put them together. If God was composed of parts, that would mean that those “parts” existed before God and had to be assembled by someone or something other than God. And if that is the case, He is not the Creator but a creation.

This is one reason why idolatry is such an abomination. It uses something finite, material, and created to depict the God who is the eternal and immaterial Creator.

Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth (Deuteronomy 4:15-18).

With regard to the doctrine of the Trinity, the fact that God is Creator means that we should avoid any conception that portrays the Trinity in material terms and reduces the Father, Son, and Spirit to parts or fractions of God. The Father, Son, and Spirit are not each one-third of God. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God – and there is one God. That is the biblical teaching.

But how are we to make sense of this without analogies like the egg or the apple? This question assumes that we are supposed to “make sense” of the Trinity. I don’t think this assumption is warranted. What if I posed the question differently – “How are finite, limited, and imperfect creatures supposed to fully grasp the inner life of the God who is infinite, unlimited, and perfect?” When asked that way, the question becomes ridiculous. Why would we ever think that we were supposed to completely understand what it is like to be God? I don’t even understand my own inner life much of the time – why would I imagine I am going to understand God’s inner life?

Because God is the Creator and everything else is creation, there is not going to be anything in our experience that is exactly like God. This point is hammered home time and again in Scripture.

For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord?
Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord,
a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones,
and awesome above all who are around him? (Psalm 89:6-7).

If nothing in heaven is comparable to God, then nothing on earth is, either.

All the nations are as nothing before him,
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.
To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him? (Isaiah 40:17-18).

In His person and in His actions, God has no equal.

Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am he,
and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save.
To whom will you liken me and make me equal,
and compare me, that we may be alike? (Isaiah 46:3-5).

Now, don’t despair! This doesn’t mean we are unable to know anything about God. God has explained certain things about His nature and works in terms that we can understand. We just need to remember that this language is dumbed down to our level (what theologians call accommodative language). God draws similarities with our experience to help us understand Him, and so long as we remember that this language is similar to but not identical with the world of our own experience, we can grasp a little bit of what God is like.

If I say, “I see your point,” I mean something similar to but not identical with “I see the coffee cup.” The latter involves seeing something with the eyes, the former involves grasping something with the intellect. I can use the same word – see – to express both ideas, but I mean something much deeper and richer regarding seeing with the intellect than I do seeing with the eyes.

By the same token, the Bible is filled with language about God drawn from our experience as creatures. Scripture speaks of the goodness of God (Titus 3:4). It also speaks of the goodness of people (Philemon 14). We can understand what is said about God just as long as we bear in mind that God’s goodness is much greater than ours (just as “seeing” a point of view is greater than “seeing” a cup).

 When the early Christians wanted to express the biblical idea that God is the Father, Son, and Spirit, one of the formulas they devised was that there is one God in three persons. This is not an illogical statement. The claim is not that there is one God in three Gods, or one person in three persons. It is that there is one God in three persons.

Nevertheless, we struggle with understanding how three persons can be one God. Our problem here is in assuming that what we mean by “person” when we speak about each other is the same as what it means when we speak of God. But this was never the case. In the fourth century, Augustine made an important disclaimer about such language:

Yet, when the question is asked, What three? human language labors altogether under great poverty of speech. The answer, however, is given, three persons, not that it might be [completely] spoken, but that it might not be left [wholly] unspoken (On the Trinity, Book 5 Chapter 9).

 Do you see Augustine’s point? When we say that one God exists in three persons, we don’t mean “person” in the same way that we do when we speak of each other as persons. Like all other aspects of God, there is something far more beautiful and profound going on – this is just the best we can do with the conceptual tools at hand.

This is a different thing altogether from claiming that the concept of the Trinity is illogical or irrational. There is nothing illogical or irrational about the beauty of the Grand Canyon, but I would never imagine I have fully grasped its enormity or grandeur. And indeed, the more beautiful something is – a glorious sunset, the laughter of a child, the love of a spouse – the more it defies complete comprehension. If this is the case within the creation, then how much more intellectually elusive will be the eternal beauty of the love of the one true Creator who is Father, Son, and Spirit?