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.