Doctrine of God
'Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty'
The Good News of the Trinity
- Tim Chester is a writer, Bible teacher and church planter. He is a leader of the Crowded House in Sheffield. View all resources by Tim Chester
In our culture Friends have become a television programme and Neighbours are experienced vicariously through Australian soap operas. We’re living in an increasingly fragmented and isolated society. It’s not just community that’s fragmented, but truth itself. Truth is now a matter of individual choice. We’re left with little shared basis for community life or social cohesion.
Human societies have always struggled to integrate the one and the many; the individual and the communal. Sometimes we universalise: the one dominates over the many. We see this in totalitarianism where the state constrains individual expression. We see it, too, in more subtle imperialisms, in the McDonaldisation of the world – the spread of an homogenous, global culture which destroys or co-opts local cultures. We’re manipulated by advertising and peer pressure into conformity with the consumer dream – a false dream at that.
Sometimes we particularise. In the West we’ve become a society of individuals. Personal freedom and choice is everything. The political discourse is all about individual consumer rights. We don’t want to take responsibility for others. Ultimately I’m answerable only to myself. But, when others are also answerable only to themselves, the result is fragmentation and isolation.
In this context the doctrine of the Trinity is good news.
The trinitarian structure of Christian faith
‘For many Christians the Trinity has become something akin to their appendix: it’s there, but they’re not sure what its function is, they get by in life without it doing very much, and if they had to have it removed they wouldn’t be too distressed’ 1. In reality, however, the Trinity is anything but irrelevant.
Everywhere you look you can trace a trinitarian structure to Christian truth and Christian living. At creation the Father creates through his Son, breathing his Spirit into humanity. At the incarnation, the Father sends the Son into the world in the power of the Spirit. In divine revelation, the Father reveals through his Word (his Son) whose revelation comes to us in the Spirit-inspired word of God (the Bible) and speaks to our hearts through the illumination of the Spirit. We pray to the Father through the Son in the power of the Spirit. The church is the people of God, the body of Christ and the community of the Holy Spirit. We have assurance because of the electing love of the Father, the finished work of the Son and the confirming witness of the Holy Spirit. ‘We live, move and have our being,’ says Robert Letham, ‘in a pervasively trinitarian atmosphere.’ 2 Walter Kasper calls the Trinity ‘the grammar’ of salvation. 3 The Son works for us and the Spirit works in us in fulfilment of the Father’s will.
1. God is a divine community
In John 17:20-26 we’re given a glimpse of God as he is in himself. Three times Jesus speaks of the Father’s love for him (23, 24, 26). Jesus prays that those who trust in his name may ‘see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world’ (24). From all eternity the Trinity has existed in love. God has always existed not a solitary individual, but as divine community. God is persons-in-relationship.
God is not only loving, he is love (1 John 4:8, 16). Love must have an object, argued Richard of St Victor in the twelfth century. If God is love and has always been love then he must always have had ‘another’ upon whom to direct his love. Furthermore, argued Richard, love must have a third party otherwise it’s self-indulgent. True love desires the beloved to be loved by another. So the Father and Son desire to share their love with another: the Holy Spirit.
But the Trinity is more than a community of love or a close family. It’s a community of being. The persons of the Trinity share one being or one nature. In verse 21 Jesus prays that those who will believe in him will be one ‘just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you’. In verse 23 he speaks of ‘you in me’. Addressing the Father, he prays that his disciples may be one ‘even as we are one’ (22). Father, Son and Spirit mutually indwell one another. Theologians call this perichoresis – a Greek term developed by the Eastern Tradition of the church.
God-in-himself, God in eternity, God from all eternity is a mutually indwelling, loving community.
Although the vocabulary of the Trinity comes later, all the ingredients of trinitarianism are there in the New Testament. We can summarise the biblical data as follows:
- there is one God
- the Father, the Son and the Spirit are God
- the Father, the Son and the Spirit are differentiated in that the Father is not the Son or the Spirit nor is the Son the Spirit
Consider 1 Corinthians 8:6. ‘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.’ (1 Corinthians 8:6, esv) When you take out the statements about ‘from whom, for whom and through whom’ you are left with: ‘There is one God, the Father … and one Lord, Jesus Christ …’ It’s clearly a reworking of Deuteronomy 6:4: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ In verse 4 of the same chapter Paul has already said: ‘there is no God but one’. But woven into Paul’s reworking of this classic statement of Old Testament monotheism is Jesus Christ: ‘The Lord our God, the Lord is one’ (Deuteronomy 6:4) becomes ‘One God, the Father, one Lord, Jesus Christ’ (1 Corinthians 8:6).
Paul is talking about eating meat previously offered to idols. He says this is acceptable because idols are nothing. His argument depends on an affirmation of classic Jewish monotheism. And yet it’s at this point that Paul interweaves Jesus Christ. There is one God and Jesus Christ is the one God.
The whole argument of the chapter hinges precisely on [Paul] being a Jewish-style monotheist, over against pagan polytheism; and, as the lynchpin of the argument, he has quoted the most central and holy confession of that monotheism and has placed Jesus firmly in the middle of it … This verse is one of the mostly genuinely revolutionary bits of theology ever written. 4
Jesus is not a second god. He’s the one God with the Father. The divinity of Jesus compromises neither the uniqueness, nor the singularity of God. The Father is God and Jesus is God and the Spirit is God, but God is still one.
John Calvin summarises the biblical data with admirable brevity when he says: ‘Father and Son and Spirit are one God, yet the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son.’ 5 He wishes the matter could be left at that, but false understandings require us to go further. The traditional formula is that God is three persons with one divine nature or substance.
2. We share in the divine community
We are made in the image of the triune God
‘Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness …” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1:26-27) Notice that God is both one and many. ‘God created man in his own image’ – the oneness of God. ‘Let us make man in our image’ – the plurality of God. But notice, too, that we are made in the image of trinitarian God. We are made in the image of the one-in-three God. We are made for plurality and unity. ‘In the image of God he created him’ – that’s our oneness. ‘Male and female he created them’ – that’s our plurality.
In the Trinity the one and the many are perfectly integrated. The unity of God doesn’t compromise the diversity of the persons. The diversity of the persons doesn’t compromise the unity of God. And this is how it should be in human society. Communal identity shouldn’t compromise individual identity; individual identity shouldn’t compromise communal identity. Collective rights shouldn’t conflict with individual rights.
But this is not how it is. At the Fall Adam, Eve and serpent formed a group of three, but they’re a group in conflict, passing the blame one to the another. The community is broken. In Genesis 4 Cain kills Abel. Human society becomes fractured and fragmented. Ever since, we’ve failed to integrate the one and the many; the communal and the individual.
The key to integrating the one and the many is found in a trinitarian understanding of personhood. Because humanity is made in the image of the Trinity, we become truly human the more we image the Trinity. Personhood in the Trinity is not defined in opposition to others, but through relationship with others. ‘The persons do not simply enter into relations with one another, but are constituted by one another in their relations.’ 6 The Father is the Father because he has a Son and so on. The Father, Son and Spirit are not persons because they operate independently of one another. They’re persons in their relationships with one another. Their personhood is realised in the total interdependency of a perichoretic relationship. God is persons-in-relationship.
Human personality can only be analogous to divine personality. But, made in the image of the Trinity as we are, human personhood is realised through relationships just as divine personhood is. The doctrine of the Trinity shows us that relationships are essential for personhood. A ‘person’ is like a ‘mother’ or a ‘son’. It has no meaning apart from relationships with other people. You can’t be a childless mother, a parentless son or a ‘relationless’ person. What defines a mother is the fact that she had children. What defines a person is the fact they have relationships with other people. Colin Gunton talks about ‘a doctrine of human perichoresis’ in which ‘persons mutually constitute each other, make each other what they are’.7
This is the opposite of individualism. Individualism defines personhood as difference. When asked who we are we answer in terms of our difference from other people. If I dyed my hair red to be different, people might say I was ‘expressing my individuality’. Identity is defined by difference. As René Descartes’ famously declared, ‘I think therefore I am’. A person is a solitary, rational individual.
But true identity is found in relationships. I find my identity as the husband of my wife, the father of my two daughters, a member of a Christian community, a child of God. This doesn’t mean I lose my individuality. The matrix of relationships of which I’m part are unique to me. Only I am the husband of my wife, the father of my children and so on. The role I play within those relationships defines my distinctiveness. But, because I’m defined by relationships, this uniqueness doesn’t lead to a solitary, fragmented existence. We find ourselves by being related to others, not by distancing ourselves from them. We find ourselves in giving and receiving. We are neither wholly the active subject of individualism nor the passive object of collectivism. ‘The heart of human being and action is a relationality whose dynamic is that of gift and reception.’8
This means that when we act in a way to diminish those relationships we dehumanise ourselves. ‘We need others in order to know who we are and it is from others that we receive our value. When we become a law unto to ourselves, when we boast of our self-sufficiency and give ourselves up to a gross and swollen individualism, when we become self-determining, making up our own ethic and standards, careless of what others think of us or expect from is, then it is that we begin to lose ourselves.’ 9 If we pursue fulfilment in our career to the detriment of our children we don’t realise our individuality, we dehumanise ourselves. If I choose to divorce because my marriage is not ‘fulfilling my needs’, I dehumanise myself. If a society organises itself around individual consumer rights alone or diminishes mutual obligations, it impoverishes its members.
We are re-made in the image of the triune God
Through our participation in Christ we participate in the divine community. John 17:20-26 is hard to read because the pronouns take us by surprise. ‘I in them and you in …’ says Jesus and we expect him to continue ‘you in them’ or ‘them in me’, but in fact he says ‘you in me’ (23). It’s not clear whether Jesus is talking about the relationships within the Trinity or between the Trinity and believers. And that’s because our participation in Christ means participation in the Trinity. We share the trinitarian life.
God is not only God-in-himself (what theologians call the ‘immanent Trinity’). He is also God-for-us (what theologians call the ‘economic Trinity’). He has not remained in himself. He has created a world. He has loved his world. And he goes on loving his world even after it rejected him. And now he has come to redeem his world in the incarnation of his Son and the sending of his Spirit. Jesus repeatedly speaks of his being sent by the Father:
that the world may believe that you have sent me. (21)
so that the world may know that you sent me … (23)
these know that you have sent me. (25)
We experience the Trinity through the sending of the Son and the sending of the Spirit. We participate in the Trinity as we receive eternal life from the Father in Jesus’ name through the Spirit.
So the Trinity is to be our pattern – we are to be like it, integrating the one and the many. But it’s more than a pattern. It’s our life. We participate in the trinitarian community through the Holy Spirit.
The church is the new humanity being re-made in the image of God. In the church we’re striving through the Spirit to express the plurality and unity of God; to be the one and the many without compromising either. ‘In Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.’ (Romans 12:5)
We’re a long way from Paul’s language of belonging to one another (Romans 12:5). In Philippians 2:2 Paul talks of ‘being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind’. It could be a description of the Trinity, but in fact it’s a description of the Christian community.
3. We witness to the divine community
… that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (21)
… 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. (22-23)
As the world sees the Christian community it believes in the divine community. This unity is not institutional: it can be observed and experienced. It’s a relational unity that reflects, and participates in, the trinitarian relationships. The ultimate apologetic for the Trinity is not some clever analogy or philosophical explanation. It’s the common life of the Christian community.
Over the centuries Christians have often tried to come up with images to explain the Trinity. Augustine spoke of one mind which consists of the distinct, but inter-related entities of memory, understanding and love (or will). Some people point to water which is one substance which can be ice, liquid or steam or to one person playing the different roles of child, spouse, employee. These analogies, however, are closer to modalism (the belief that the one God expresses himself in different ways or modes at different times) than orthodox trinitarianism. Our analogies may help to some extent, but ultimately they lead us astray.
In the second commandment God forbad the Israelites to create an image of him. When God was revealed at Horeb, the people of Israel ‘heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice’ (Deuteronomy 4:12). God can’t be represented by created things. He’s to be without image in the world. Except Moses then says: ‘But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day’ (Deuteronomy 4:20). It’s an odd description of Egypt: ‘the iron furnace’. It’s the language of making on idol. God himself has cast for himself an image from the iron furnace of Egypt. We’re not to make any image of God, for God himself has made an image of himself in the world: humanity. God’s image in humanity has been marred by our rebellion. But now God’s redeemed people are his image in the world.
The Christian community is to reflect the divine community. We’re to love one another; share with one another; rejoice and mourn with one another; share our lives. We’re to make decisions with regard to one another when those decisions affect the community just as I consult my wife when my decisions affect her.
Jesus says that when the world sees our community life it will know that he was sent by the Father to save the world. The challenge is this: When the world sees our community life, does it recognise a sign of God’s salvation? We’re not talking about the welcome or buzz people get on a Sunday morning. We’re talking about the network of believing relationships in action – Monday to Saturday. Does your church reflect the divine community?
Conclusion: the Trinity and the cross
There is no God apart from me,
a righteous God and a Saviour;
there is none but me.
‘Turn to me and be saved,
all you ends of the earth;
for I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn,
my mouth has uttered in all integrity
a word that will not be revoked:
Before me every knee will bow;
by me every tongue will swear.’ (Isaiah 45:21-23)
In Philippians 2 Paul takes this great monotheistic statement of Isaiah and applies it to Christ. Christ will receive the allegiance of every knee and every tongue that is due to the one God. But in Philippians Paul makes a further claim: this worship is due to Christ because ‘he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!’ (8). Jesus is acknowledged as God not because he’s done godlike things in terms of human notions of god. It’s not because he’s acted in power or revealed himself in a blaze of glory. God will be acknowledged as God because he submitted to the cross. The cross alone reveals the radical, gracious freedom of God. God alone is so free that he can discount ‘equality with God’ (6) and offer himself in love for his people. Only God is so gracious that he freely chooses to be godforsaken to reconcile to himself with those who have rejected him. Nothing demonstrates the godness of God so much as the godlessness of the cross.
1.Robin Parry, Worshipping Trinity, Paternoster, 2005.
2. Robert Letham, 'The Trinity - Yesterday, Today and the Future', Themelios 28:1, Autumn 2002, 32.
3. Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, SCM, 1984, 311.
4. Tom Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, Lion, 1997, 66-67.
5. John Calvin, Institutes, 1.13.5.
6. Colin Gunton, The One, The Three and the Many, CUP, 1993, 214.
7. Colin Gunton, The One, The Three and the Many, 169.
8. Colin Gunton, The One, The Three and the Many, 225.
9. Peter Lewis, The Message of the Living God, IVP, 2000, 294.