The Trinity: The Beauty of the Trinity

The Shield of the Trinity

In this series on the Trinity I have tried to make the biblical teaching that God is the Father, Son, and Spirit as accessible as possible. The doctrine of the Trinity is simple enough – there is one God, and this God is Father, Son, and Spirit. But models and explanations of how the one God exists as Father, Son, and Spirit require entering into some deep waters. This is what we should expect when trying to catch a glimpse of the inner life of God who is beyond comparison (Isaiah 40:18).

But it is worthwhile to contemplate that which exceeds comprehension. Deep water is also beautiful water, and the scuba diver enjoys exploring it not because she thinks she will master the deep, but rather because experiencing the deep makes her appreciate its grandeur all the more. So you might say that over the last few weeks we have been in theological waters that are way over our head – and as a result we are even more awestruck by the grandeur of God.

This is especially so when we meditate on the biblical portrait of the Son and the Spirit proceeding from the Father. The Father eternally begets the Son and breathes the Spirit. The timeless generation of the Son and spiration (to use the technical expression) of the Spirit are very different from the way we normally think of “begetting” and “breathing.”

However, there is something profoundly beautiful about this truth. It means, as Michael Reeves puts it, that “God is an inherently outgoing, life-giving God” (Delighting in the Trinity, p. 24). If the Father eternally begets the Son and breathes the Spirit, then that means that giving life and sharing love are not radical departures from the way the Father normally exists. Rather, it means that it is His very essence to give, to love. Later, commenting on the passages that speak of the Son “radiating” from the Father (such as Hebrews 1:3), Reeves says:

And so, as he gloriously goes, “shines” and “radiates” out from his Father, he shows us that the Father is essentially outgoing. It is unsurprising that such a God should create…The God who loves to have an outgoing Image of himself in his Son loves to have many images of his love (who are themselves outgoing). The Father loved him before the creation of the world, and the reason the Father sends him is so that the Father’s love for him might be in others also. That is why the Son goes out from the Father, in both creation and salvation: that the love of the Father for the Son might be shared (43-44).

As human beings, our ability to understand this sort of eternal, outgoing love is radically limited. It would be like an animal trying to comprehend the intimacy of the marriage of a man and woman. There are rudimentary points of similarity, of course. Animals have an instinctive need to breed, and animals have basic social structures. But no animal could begin to comprehend the level of intimacy that exists between husbands and wives in the “one flesh” relationship of marriage. Kristi and I have been married only a short while, and yet there are millions of ways we are becoming one person, sharing the same expressions, thinking the same thoughts, feeling the same emotions.

In the bond of marriage in which two become one we can see – in faint outline – how the Father, Son, and Spirit exist in the perfect unity of love. There are obviously all sorts of ways the analogy between the husband-wife  relationship and Father-Son-Spirit relationship break down. And since the gap between Creator and creation is much greater than that between humans and animals, it is far more difficult for us to comprehend the relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit than it is for animals to understand Mr. and Mrs. Scott! But to the extent that we can experience the way in which two become one in marriage, and to the extent that we can imagine that the intimacy of the triune God is eternally and infinitely greater, it should make our hearts soar to meditate on what it means to say that “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

The reason that reflecting on God’s eternal love as Father-Son-Spirit should capture our heart is because Scripture teaches that this God who is by nature outgoing, overflowing love, has created us to share in this love. Think of this passage:

The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.  Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world (John 17:22-23).

Or this one:

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:5-6).

Or this one:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God (Galatians 4:4-7).

All of these passages (and many besides) speak of God offering us love, glory, and sonship that emanate from the eternal love, glory, and sonship of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  Contemplating the Trinity enhances our awareness of the infinite love we are invited to share. And this in turn moves us to praise and worship. The last verse of Charle Wesley’s Come, Thou Almighty King has been changed in many hymnals, but the original form is a fitting way to conclude this post-

To thee, great One in Three,
eternal praises be,
hence, evermore.
Thy sovereign majesty
may we in glory see,
and to eternity love and adore!


The Trinity: The Spirit and the Son

In previous posts about the Trinity we have looked at the biblical basis for the doctrine, the biblical importance of the doctrine, and the biblical analogies of the doctrine. In this post I want to address a question posed to me by a good friend regarding the relationship of Jesus and the Spirit. The Bible says that the Son proceeds from the Father (John 8:42), and that the Spirit also proceeds from the Father (John 15:26). On the basis of passages like these, the classical tradition has suggested that the Father eternally “begets” the Son and eternally “breathes” the Spirit. But what about the relationship between the Son and the Spirit?

There is something peculiar about the way the New Testament speaks of the Spirit. On the one hand, the biblical text plainly identifies the Spirit as God. You can see this clearly in 2 Corinthians 3:15-18, where Paul reflects on the story found in Exodus 34  in which “Moses went in before the LORD (YHWH) to speak with him” with a veil (34:34). According to Paul, the Holy Spirit is YHWH:

Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:15-18, emphasis added).

And yet on the other hand, as you can also see in the same text, Paul also speaks of the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of the Lord” (v. 17). So the Spirit is the Lord, and the Spirit is of the Lord. In v. 3 of the same chapter, Paul describes the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of the living God.”

Indeed, throughout the New Testament, the Spirit is called “the Spirit of God” (Ephesians 4:30; 1 John 4:2, for example), as well as the “Spirit of Christ” (as in 1 Peter 1:11) or “Spirit of Jesus” (Acts 16:7). And sometimes this occurs in the same verse!

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him (Romans 8:9, emphasis added).

The Spirit is God, but the Spirit is also “of God,” and “of Christ.” What are we to make of this data?

Let’s go back to those ancient concepts of the eternal begetting of the Son and the eternal breathing of the Spirit. What if the manner by which the Father eternally breathes the Spirit is somehow through or with the Son? This suggestion acknowledges that the Spirit is God – He is eternal; and it would also take into account the passages that describe the Spirit as the Spirit of God and of Christ.

This suggestion would also align with the passages that describe the Son sending the Spirit, like this one:

But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me (John 15:26).

 Or this one:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you (John 16:13-15).

And this suggestion would also explain why at times Jesus says that the Father sends the Spirit, but that the Father does so in his name-

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (John 14:26).

The proposal that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son seems to make the best sense out of all of these passages. And it is the conclusion drawn by many ancient thinkers. In the fourth century Augustine summarized the idea like this:

…because we find that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son also. But the Father gave Him this too, not as to one already existing, and not yet having it; but whatever He gave to the only-begotten Word, He gave by begetting Him. Therefore He so begot Him as that the common Gift should proceed from Him also, and the Holy Spirit should be the Spirit of both. This distinction, then, of the inseparable Trinity is not to be merely accepted in passing, but to be carefully considered (On the Trinity 15.29).

So to answer my friend’s question, the connection between the Son and the Spirit is that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.* And all of this speaks to what Augustine described as “the inseparable Trinity.” The Father, Son, and Spirit are not three distinct pieces of a godhead pie. They are inseparable eternal relationships. The Father eternally begets the Son, and the Son is the eternally begotten. The Father eternally breathes the Spirit, and the Spirit is the eternally breathed. And in view of what we have looked at in this post, the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son, so that He is eternally the Spirit of God and the Spirit of the Son.

These are deep waters for sure, but – as I hope to explain in my next post – they are inexhaustibly beautiful waters to contemplate.

*That last phrase, “and the Son,” is a crucial one in the history of the doctrine of the Trinity. In Latin, “and the Son” is filioque (pronounced like “filly ohkway”), and that word was added to one of the early creedal statements about the Trinity known as the Nicene Creed. Some believers objected to this addition, and the resulting debate came to be known as the filioque controversy. It is one of the major sources of schism between the Orthodox Church (which rejected the filioque addition) and the Catholic Church (which accepted it). As I have explained, I think the concept of the Spirit’s procession from the Father and the Son is the best way to make sense of the scriptural data, so in my opinion, the filioque is really ok!

Trinity Tuesday – An Ancient Analogy for the Trinity (Part 2)

One of my favorite definitions of the Trinity comes from Mike Reeves, who says that the Trinity is the Father, Son, and Spirit loving each other forever. It is beautiful, and it is simple. And from one point of view, the claim that the one true God is the Father, Son, and Spirit is a very straightforward teaching. It is complicated only when we try to harmonize the oneness of the doctrine (“one God”) with the threeness of the doctrine (“Father, Son, and Spirit”). But the fact that we may wrestle with just how it is that God’s inner life is this way doesn’t really present a major problem. After all, why would we ever think that we as limited and finite beings would ever fully grasp any aspect of the infinite and eternal God’s inner life? “Give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted” (Isaiah 12:4).

In an effort to better grasp the truth of the Trinity, teachers through the years have proposed various analogies. As I commented on previously, the trouble with analogies is that they use material things (eggs, apples, water) to illustrate something immaterial (the nature and life of God as Father, Son, and Spirit). Inevitably these analogies end up denying the oneness of God by dividing Him into parts, or else they deny the threeness of God by reducing eternal relationships to mere roles or modes that are periodically assumed but do no exist in a relationship with each other (like me being a husband, uncle, and son-in-law).

Last week I introduced an analogy that I think may be helpful, however, and it has a very ancient pedigree. It was proposed by Augustine in the fourth century, and developed by Aquinas in the thirteenth century. It is not perfect (no analogy can be), but it opens a window for us to contemplate the Trinity.

The analogy draws upon the passages that speak of the Son and the Spirit “proceeding” from the Father (like John 8:42 and John 15:26). In my previous post in this series I discussed how the Son proceeds from the Father. By way of review, the analogy goes like this: We have minds, and thoughts proceed from those minds. But until we communicate those thoughts to others, they remain internal to us. So thinking is a kind of internal procession. John 1:1 refers to the Son as “the Word,” the logos, the idea or thought of God. In a manner similar to thoughts proceeding from our minds, the Word proceeds from God. But until the Word became flesh (John 1:14), this procession was internal, just as our thoughts remain within us until we communicate them.

The big difference between the way thoughts proceed from our mind and the way the Word proceeds from God is this – AND THIS IS CRUCIAL (so crucial I violated blog etiquette and used all caps!)! Unlike our thoughts, which are temporary – they come and go – the Bible says that the Word has always existed (John 1:1). There was never a time that the Father existed that the Son did not. The Son proceeds from the Father and always has, as Fred Sanders likes to say (The Deep Things of God, first edition, p. 93).

Through the years, this concept has come to be known as the “eternal generation” of the Son. It captures the biblical teaching that the Son derives being from the Father while at the same time being equal to the Father in the eternal divine nature (Philippians 2:6; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3). Another venerable term used to describe this teaching is “begetting,” the Father eternally begets the Son. Again – AND I CAN’T STRESS THIS ENOUGH (sorry to yell again!) – the idea here is not that the Father existed by Himself for a few billion years and then decided to have a Son. Rather, the idea here is that the Father eternally begets a Son. This is how the ancient thinkers understood the biblical descriptions of Jesus as “the only begotten God” (John 1:18 NASB).

Just as you cannot have a son without a father or a father without a son, this doctrine also means that the Father and Son are inseparable. A clumsy way to put it is that there is the Begetter, the Begotten, and the eternal begetting. A more beautiful way to put it is the prayer of Jesus, “You loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).

But what about the Holy Spirit? So far I have only discussed the relationship of the Father and the Son. Is there a related analogy for the relationship between the Father and the Spirit? There is indeed.

In addition to the procession of thoughts from the mind, there is another sort of internal procession in our experience. When I think about my wife, my heart wells up in love for her – a desire to do good for her. But until that love is expressed to her (with flowers, or jewelry, or – her most treasured way – me emptying the dishwasher!), that love remains internal to me. So just as thoughts proceed from the mind, love proceeds from the will.

Ancient thinkers like Augustine suggested that this procession of love is a good way to picture the relationship of the Spirit to the Father. The Spirit proceeds from the Father in a way similar to (but infinitely greater than) love proceeds from the will. This illustration also draws upon the passages that associate the Spirit with love, such as the coming of the Spirit upon Jesus at His baptism as the Father says, “This is my beloved Son (Matthew 3:17).

Since the word in Greek for “Spirit” (pneuma) also means “breath,” another way to think of this is that God the Father eternally breathes out the Spirit. So just as there is the eternal begetting of the Son there is the eternal breathing of the Spirit. And, just as the Father is inseparable from the Son, the Spirit is inseparable from the Father as well. Again, to spell it out rather clunkily, there is the breather, the breath, and the eternal breathing.

Fred Sanders captures these concepts in this great diagram from the first edition of The Deep Things of God, p. 92-

Are these analogies perfect? Of course not. Our thoughts do not eternally proceed from our minds, nor does love from the will. And our thoughts do not have a reciprocal relationship with our minds, but the Son does have a relationship with the Father. The same is true of the Spirit. But insofar as these analogies preserve the oneness of God while at the same time illustrating the relationships of Father, Son, and Spirit, they are probably the best that we can do.

The important thing here is to bear in mind that these analogies are conveying a beautiful truth. The Father, Son, and Spirit have always existed in the perfect unity of love. God is love, and He always has been, and always will be. Such a God is worthy of praise!



Trinity Tuesday (a day late!) – An Ancient Analogy for the Trinity (Part 1)

(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 Shield of the Trinity

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. Continue reading

Trinity Tuesdays: What the Trinity Is Not (or, Don’t Be a Heretic!)

The Shield of the Trinity

The Bibles teaches that God is the Father, Son, and Spirit, and that this is a very important teaching, at the heart of the gospel itself. But it is also very hard to conceptualize. How can one God be three persons?

This difficulty in grasping the nature of God is not limited to discussions of the Trinity. As limited, finite, imperfect creatures, we are simply incapable of fully comprehending anything about God’s nature.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).

There is a great gulf fixed between creature and Creator. I don’t mean that we are unable to know anything about God. God has bridged this gap by describing Himself in terms that we can understand. We just need to remember that this language, by its very nature, is “dumbed down” to our level.

This is especially true of a word I used in the first paragraph – person. I am a person, my wife is a person, my Granny was a person. My usage of this word normally refers to human beings. But when used of God, it obviously means something much different, something significantly – infinitely – greater. But it is the best we can do to conceive of the relationship that exists between the Father, Son, and Spirit.

Because of our creaturely limitations, it is often much easier to say what we know God is not rather than what God is. Many of the classical theological terms used to describe God are words that express a negative. He is infinite, not finite. He is immaterial, not material. He is immutable, not mutable or changing. And even when we make positive declarations about God, such as “God is love” (1 John 4:8), we need to remember that what we are saying about God is similar to but at the same time vastly superior to what we normally mean when we use the same words. I love my wife, and God loves my wife, but my love is only a pale reflection of His.

In the previous post in this series I drew attention to this conceptual gap between us and God as it related to analogies of the Trinity. As Fred Sanders likes to say, such analogies offer a murky view of the Trinity, but they offer a crystal clear picture of certain heresies! Last week I discussed one of the heresies, the notion that God is made up of parts.Since “isms” are bad, let’s call this inadequate view partialism. But God is Creator, and this means that He is not composed of parts, otherwise those parts would have preexisted Him and would have been assembled by someone or something other than Him. Consequently, analogies of the Trinity that reduce the Father, Son, and Spirit to parts of God, such as the egg or the apple, are seriously defective.

Another common illustration of the Trinity that is crucially deficient is the comparison between the three persons of the Trinity and the three roles of wife/mother/sister (or husband/father/brother). For instance, I am a son, a husband, and an uncle, just like God is Father, Son, and Spirit – right?  Well, no. This is not at all what the Bible has in mind. Just think of how different this analogy is from this event in the life of Jesus:

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17).

Shane the uncle doesn’t anoint Shane the husband who tells Shane the Son, “I am really pleased with you!” That’s because Shane is one person, and the roles of husband, son, and uncle are different modes of action by the same person. But the biblical portrayal is one God who is eternally three persons, Father, Son and Spirit (bearing in mind that “person” in this confession is a much greater sort of thing than we can ever know).

The view that Father/Son/Spirit are just three roles or modes of what God does is an ancient heresy called modalism. It distorts the truth that the one God is three persons into meaning there is one person who plays three roles. Its heretical mirror image is the idea that the three persons are three gods, tritheism.

“So it sounds like you are saying we should avoid analogies!?” Well, yes! At least, we should be very careful to emphasize the inevitable limitations of all analogies of God’s inner life. And we should avoid analogies that illustrate heresies. And if you ask me, anytime we talk about God and avoid being a heretic, that’s a good day’s work.

Trinity Tuesdays: Why the Trinity is Not Like an Egg or an Apple (or, God Is Way Awesomer Than Us)

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? Continue reading

Review: Delighting in the Trinity, by Michael Reeves

“God is love” (1 John 4:8).

From this simple, yet profound, statement about the nature of God, British theologian Michael Reeves draws a beautiful portrait of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity in Delighting in the Trinity, An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012). As the subtitle of the book suggests, a proper understanding of the Trinity shapes the entirety of Christian faith and practice. Reeves explores these ramifications regarding God’s identity as Father, Son and Spirit (chapter 1), creation (chapter 2), salvation (chapter 3), the Christian life (chapter 4), and the nature of God (chapter 5).

Why begin with the notion that “God is love”? Because “God could not be love if there was nobody to love” (p. 26). If love is truly essential to God’s nature, then God did not start loving after He created the world. He has always been a God of love. But if that is the case, who was God loving before there was a universe? Continue reading

Trinity Tuesdays – The Importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity

My blog platform enables me to see how many times my posts are viewed. Let’s just say that last week’s initial post in a new series about the Trinity did not set any records! I think I understand why. To a lot of people, the very term, Trinity, evokes images of medieval monks chanting in Latin. Perhaps it doesn’t seem like a very practical subject to spend much time thinking about.

But I believe the biblical teaching that God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is vitally important. And here are three simple reasons why: Continue reading

Trinity Tuesdays – The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity

The Shield of the Trinity From Wikimedia Commons

The foundational doctrine of the Bible is that there is one true and living God. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). This prayer, called the Shema (from the Hebrew word for “hear”), was the central confession of Israel.

But just as surely as the Bible teaches there is one God, it also teaches that there is a three-ness to God – that God is the Father, Son, and Spirit. Astonishingly, one of the primary proof texts for this claim is Israel’s ancient creed in Deuteronomy 6:4.   In 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, the apostle Paul says:

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

According to Paul, the “LORD our God” refers to the Father (“one God”) and also to Jesus Christ” (“one LORD”). This elaboration of the Shema is profound. It says that the one LORD who is God that Israel has always worshiped is the Father and the Son. Continue reading