(My apologies for being a day late – yesterday was a treatment day for my wife, and that tends to throw the week off for us a bit).
The Bible teaches that God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This teaching, commonly called the Trinity, is vital to the Christian faith. But since it deals with the inner life of the incomparable God, it is also beyond human comprehension. Just as the other characteristics of God’s nature boggle our imagination – His eternity, His omnipotence, His omniscience – the eternal love of the Father, Son, and Spirit as one God also stretches far beyond our limited capacity to fully understand.
In my previous post on the Trinity I cautioned against the use of analogies. It is only natural for us to try to understand God by relating Him to something in our experience. Scripture is full of analogies like this – God is a shepherd, God is a husband, God is a rock. And so long as we remember that these descriptions are analogies, images that picture God in terms similar to but not identical with our experience, they serve a great purpose.
But the problem with most analogies of the Trinity is that they rely on material objects (apples, eggs, water) to illustrate relationships that are immaterial. God doesn’t have a physical body, and He is not composed of parts. So the attempt to portray the Trinity in material terms inevitably distorts the Father, Son, and Spirit into fractions of God.
The ancient thinkers understood this problem. Yet, like us, they sought for a way to illustrate the Trinity in terms that made the doctrine easier to grasp. If only there was something in the human experience that was not material that could illustrate what the biblical text says about the Father, Son, and Spirit. Guess what – there is! It is the mind.
According to traditional Christian understanding, the mind is not a material object. The intellect makes use of physical organs to gather information, of course, so there is a connection between the mind and the brain. But the mind is not the brain (I am doing some reading in preparation for a series of posts on this topic in the future, so stay tuned!).
What does the mind do? Well, on a good day it thinks. Thoughts proceed from the mind. But until we let someone else know what those thoughts are by speaking them or by writing them down, they remain internal to us. So thoughts proceed from our mind, but this procession is internal at first and becomes external only when we communicate the thoughts.
Now, let’s suppose that it was possible for our mind to entertain a thought for 5 minutes…for ten minutes…for an hour….for a day…in fact, let’s imagine that our mind could entertain a thought with such constancy that the thought eternally and timelessly proceeded from our mind. This is impossible, I know – it is hard for me to entertain a thought for 15 seconds! But just imagine that a mind could conceive of a thought eternally.
And, to take it a step further, let’s suppose that this eternal thought is not merely about one aspect of myself, such as my favorite color (royal blue), or my favorite basketball team (the Kentucky Wildcats), or my favorite food (steak). It is about me in my entirety – all of me – fully, completely, and immediately conceiving of everything that I am.
So what we would have in this case is a thought eternally proceeding from a mind that is the exact representation of that mind. And that thought is as eternal as the mind itself – like the light proceeding from a lamp that has always been on. Now you have one of the classic ancient analogies of the relationship of the Father and the Son – an eternal procession.
Where did the early theologians get such an idea? Right out of the Bible! “Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me” (John 8:42, KJV).
The early thinkers like Augustine distinguished Jesus’ coming in the flesh – the incarnation – from His eternal procession from God. Before Jesus “came from God” He “proceeded forth” from God. And one way they illustrated this procession was by the analogy of a thought proceeding from a mind.
The value of this analogy is that it deals with something immaterial and not something that consists of parts. And, it does as good a job as any analogy could of illustrating how the Son could be distinct from God yet identified as God. And, as icing on the cake, it uses concepts that are rooted in Scripture.
Think about John 1:1 in this light.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
We know from John 1:14 that “the Word” became flesh as Jesus of Nazareth. But long before that moment in history, this one called the Word existed before history, before creation itself (John 1:2-3). And this “Word” existed in relationship to God – “was with God,” but also existed in identity as God – “the Word was God.” A word (λόγος, logos in Greek) is “a communication whereby the mind finds expression” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian literature ). In the case of John 1:1, God (the ultimate “mind”) expresses Himself in the “Word” (the ultimate thought). But unlike our thoughts, this is an eternal and timeless procession of a Thought from a Mind, and the Thought so completely represents the Mind that it is identified as the Mind. “The Word was God.”
In eternity, this procession was internal to God similar to the way that your thoughts are internal to you until you express them to someone else. We use words to express ideas, and the Word came to express the greatest of all ideas.
No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known (John 1:18, ESV).
Without the doctrine of the Trinity, this passage is a perplexing riddle. How can God be at God’s side and make God known? But with the doctrine of the Trinity we can make some sense of this passage. The internal procession of the Word who is God became an external procession of the Word at the incarnation. The timeless conception of the Word entered into history with the conception of Jesus.
Since all analogies of the Trinity are ultimately inadequate, let’s make sure we understand the insufficiencies of this one. Here are some of them:
- Our minds are not infinite, but God is.
- Our thoughts are temporary and incomplete, but the Son is the eternal and perfect expression of God.
- Our thoughts proceed from our mind but cannot interact with our mind, while the Son – the Logos – can interact with God the Father.
So the analogy of the procession of a thought from a mind is not perfect. But it gives us a conceptual framework to approach the relationship of the Father and Son. And it helps to explain how the Son can exist in relation to the Father but be equal with the Father. And this theme, the Son’s distinction from but equality with the Father, is the overall pattern of biblical testimony. He is the “form of God” (Philippians 2:6); He is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15); and He is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3).
The key error to avoid here is any notion that there was a time when the Father existed but the Son did not. Remember, this analogy involves the eternal procession of the Son from the Father on par with a thought that proceeds eternally from a mind. One of our members at church – a truck driver, not a theologian – once prayed, “Father, we thank you for your Son, a Son who is the same age as the Father.” Maybe Jay is a theologian after all! For in professing the equality of the Son with the Father, Jay was confessing the classic doctrine of the eternal procession of the Son.
So far I have only mentioned the Father and the Son. But what about the Holy Spirit? Did the ancient thinkers have an analogy for the Spirit? As a matter of fact they did – but Lord willing that will be the subject of next week’s post.