On the Trinity (my least favorite doctrine)

“Within this unity there are three persons of one essential nature, power and eternity — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

It seems like I’ve had issues with the doctrine of the trinity my whole life. From a young age my dad shared his concerns about this formulation that seemed to be illogical. I listened and absorbed his hesitation.   In junior high I asked my Sunday school teachers to help me understand the “hypostatic union” (in junior high I actually knew what those words meant and used them…they refer to how Jesus’ human and divine natures worked together, how he could be fully human and fully God at the same time). My Sunday School teachers were not, not surprisingly, ill-prepared to answer.  So my questions remained and grew. Throughout high school I heard a lot of analogies that left me more confused and frustrated.  I asked a lot of questions in my theology classes at Bible College.  One semester  we had a visiting theology professor…I had the honor of lunching with him one on one, I assume my professor hoped this guy could explain the Trinity to me in a way that would make sense so that I could rest and he would need not worry about the eternal destiny of my potentially heretical soul.  He could not.

The doctrine of the Trinity just never made sense to me.   But it seems like nearly every other orthodox Christian throughout history believed it, so I kept trying to figure out what I was missing.  What made it possible for other people to so easily accept Trinity as basic fact?  What did they know that I didn’t?  Or did they just not care?

When I looked at the Bible, here’s what I saw: there were clearly three distinct persons…the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (it seems to me that the distinction between them becomes more clear in the New Testament). Each of them has uniquely divine characteristics, does uniquely divine stuff, and is worshiped as God.  Despite this, the Bible is abundantly clear that there is only one God.   I knew from experience that God was real and trusted the Bible so, even though I didn’t understand the doctrine, through lots of wrestling and uneasiness, I eventually came to accept it but I still don’t really like it.

I think the turning point for me was accepting something as true even when I couldn’t understand it.  For a generally logical person this goes against my very nature. But I came to realize that truth was not determined by my ability to comprehend something but by what God revealed through* his word.

In this post I’m going to lay out the basic doctrine and share a couple of helpful videos.  Next week I’ll talk a little about the “ontological equality” and “economic roles” within the trinity, explore some common heresies, and I’ll share a little bit about what the idea of “the eternal subordination of the son” means and why it matters to you (especially if you are a woman).

Where We Find the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible

The word “Trinity” isn’t used in the Bible, but the idea is definitely there.  If the doctrine of the Trinity was a table, these would be the legs (it appears to be a five-legged table, don’t worry, it’s fine):

  1. In the Bible we see three distinct persons: The Father, Son and Holy Spirit
  2. They are all given divine titles
  3. They all have uniquely divine attributes
  4. They all do uniquely divine things
  5. Yet there is only one God

As Christians throughout the ages have viewed these truths they basically came to this conclusion: that makes no sense, let’s just admit that and create a new label because none of our current labels fit. Except, sometimes, they try to convince you that it does make sense and then you begin to feel like you’re crazy.  It doesn’t have to make sense to be true.  This isn’t anti-intellectual, it just means that God is bigger, more intricate, and more than our minds can comprehend.  Certainly, it seems reasonable that we, as his creatures, couldn’t fully explain or understand the awesomeness of the God who created all things.  So this thing that God has revealed about himself isn’t against reason, it’s just beyond reason.

Let’s look at the legs:

1. In the Bible We See Three Distinct Persons

As we move from the Old Testament into the New Testament the distinction between the three members of the Trinity becomes more apparent until it is explicitly stated. It is hinted at in the Old Testament, for example, when God speaks using “we” and “us” (Genesis 1:26, 3:22, 11:7; Isaiah 6:8).  There are passages when at least two distinct people are spoken of and the titles “God” and “Lord” are used of both (Psalm 45:6-7, see also Hebrews 1:8, Psalm 110:1 see also Matthew 22:41-46).

The distinction is explicitly stated in places like Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and other places where three members of the Trinity are listed together (Matthew 3:16-17, 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, 1 Peter 1:2, Jude 20-21).  Of course, the fact that there are three of them isn’t that profound.  It gets complicated when we declare that each is fully and equally God.

2.  They Are All Given Divine Titles

They are all called God.  “God” is the Father’s default title.  He’s who we think of most often when we hear or read the name, “God.” The Son is called God explicitly at least twice: John 1:1 ” In the beginning was the word and the word was God” and in John 20:28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” The Holy Spirit is commonly referred to as “The Spirit of God” and in ­Acts 5:3-4 lying to the Holy Spirit is equated to lying to God (side note: you should definitely not lie to God).

2. They All have Uniquely Divine Attributes

I’m only picking a few attributes here for sake of space but you could find a ton more by checking our a systematic theology book or searching the internet.

Omnipresence (God’s ability to be all places) is ascribed to the Father (Jeremiah 23:34), the Son (Matthew 18:20), and the ­Holy Spirit (Psalm 139:20).

Omniscience (God’s knowing of all the things) is ascribed to the Father (Jeremiah 17:10), the ­Son (Revelation 2:23), and the ­Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:11).

Eternality (Always existing in all time) is ascribed to the ­Father (Psalm 90:2), the ­Son (John 1:2; Revelation 1:8, 17), and the ­Holy Spirit (Hebrews 9:14).

No one other than God can be everywhere, know everything, or exist in the beginning and forever.

3.  They All do Uniquely Divine Things

There are some things that it seems only God can do.  Here are two quick examples of divine things that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do together.

All three were involved in Creation. This is important because it means they were Creators, not created; which makes them distinct from everything and everyone else (Father: Genesis 1:1, Psalm 102:25; Son: Colossians 1:16; ­Holy Spirit: Genesis 1:2).

All three have distinct roles but work together for the salvation of humanity. The Father elects (Ephesians 1:4), the Son redeems (Ephesians 1:7), and the Holy Spirit seals (Ephesians 1:13).

4.  Yet there is only one God

In a previous post I talked about the importance of the oneness of God.  So here I’ll just share a list of verses (in both the Old and New Testaments) that declare there is only one God, even though three persons are clearly talked about.

  • Deuteronomy 6:4-7
  • Exodus 20:2-3
  • James 2:19
  • Isaiah 45:5-6
  • 1 Timothy 2:5
  • Romans 3:30

Conclusion:

The Bible clearly declared and displayed three persons as divine while also clearly declaring there is one God.  I have come to accept that the Bible does indeed declare these two, seemingly irreconcilable facts, and does not try to reconcile them or explain them away.  And so, rather than trying to understand, I’ve chosen to accept and live in the tension that we’re supposed to be reasonable and that some things are beyond reason.

Bad Analogies

Analogies can be helpful for helping us understand things, but every analogy breaks down somewhere.  The breakdown is most of the analogies were obvious to my junior high self.  Be cautious when you use them…know your audience and be aware of the heresy that they may accidentally incorporate into their theology.

God is like an egg: The egg is made up of three distinct parts but there is only one egg.  There was a yolk, the shell and the white part.  The problem is that the yolk is part of the egg, but it in not the egg.  This is partialism (dividing God into parts).

God is like water: Water can be steam, liquid, or ice just like God is the Father, Son, And Holy Spirit.  The problem with this is that the same molecule of water cannot be all three things at the same time.  This is modalism (the idea that God is presents himself with different faces at different times)

This fun video will walk you through these and other heresies:

 

 

WHY IT MATTERS

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably asking, “So what?” and I don’t blame you unless you’re inherently interested in the intricacies of theology this could be really boring and seem pointless.  But it’s not.  And here’s why:  If you want to know God and be in relationship with him (this is what we were designed for) you have to get to know God on his own terms.  You have to come to see him as who he says he is and live in that reality.  If you believe he is something different than what he really is you can never really deeply know him.  Diving into doctrine can help us know God and relate to him in ways that prayer, worship, and even his presence cannot (of course, if we only focus on doctrine than we miss out on the incredible knowledge that comes through prayer, worship, and the experience of his presence.  These are ALL important paths to get to know God and to pursue his heart).

  • The Trinity shows us that God is inherently relational.  He relates to himself and we, being made in his image, are designed to relate to him and others.
  • The general pattern of prayer in the Bible is to pray to the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:18).
  • Jesus’s humanity and deity have some very specific implications:
    • God humbled himself to come and be with us. He did not send an ambassador, a surrogate, he himself came and entered our world, took our sin, and walked with us.
    • Jesus could only be a substitute for our sin if he was human and could only die for all of us if he was infinite (one righteous man could die for one sinner but one righteous God-man could die for an infinite amount of sinners).

 


* this was one of the most difficult words to choose in this post because it speaks to my understanding of God’s revelation in the Bible.  Does the Bible contain God’s word?  Is  the Bible God’s word?  Is the Bible a vessel through which God communicates?  You probably didn’t think about it that much…but I’ll explain more about why it matters when I get to the sections of the Articles of Religion that discuss the Bible.


BONUS MATERIAL:

This is a common picture used to describe the trinity.  It doesn’t really help me but it might help you (it’s also used in one of the videos below)

trinity

 

Heresy

When people try to hard too make sense of of the doctrine of the Trinity they usually end up falling into heresy or end up using bad analogies that are basically heresy.  (Heresy simply means bad doctrine or believing false things about God).

  •  If you accept that there is one God, and three persons…perhaps the other persons are inferior.  For example, perhaps Jesus is not really God ( this is called the “Arian heresy” after its most famous proponent, Arius.  Jesus is seen as the son of God, created by God, not eternal, not God but divine. Jehovah Witnesses fall into this camp).  Another option is to see the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force (but he has a will, emotions, teaches, comforts, etc.)
  • Occasionally Christians are accused of being tritheists (having three Gods).  We know that we do not have three Gods, we only have one, but you can certainly understand why this would be confusing for those on the outside looking in.
  • Unitarianism
  • Modalism:  This is the idea that God exists in different modes (or as different people) at different times.  In the Old Testament he was the Father, in the New Testament he was Jesus, in the Church age he is the Holy Spirit.  Of course, this is foolish becuase the members of the trinity are shown interacting with each other so, obviously, he’s more than one thing at one time.
  • Partialism:  That each member of the trinity is 1/3 of God or part of God.

 

 

 

Sick Day

It’s a sick day at the Ellison home after a rough week walking through the messiness of life with friends so there’s no post this week. But NEXT week you can look forward to a post on the Trinity.  Specifically, I’ll talk about how the word “Trinity” isn’t a biblical word but the doctrine does seem to be biblical, how I argued with professors all through Bible college and how I came accept the reality of the Trinity even though it makes NO SENSE to me. I’ll talk about how the Trinity is unique to Christianity and how this doctrine separates us from pseudo-Christians factions (like Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses).  I’ll also share my favorite Trinity videos and discuss why the trinity matters to your every day life.  I may need to break it into a couple posts because you also need to know what the doctrine of eternal subordination of the Son is and its implications for the roles of men and women in the home and church.  So, that’s what you have to look forward to.

Somewhere between 6,000 and 4.5 Billion Years

Somewhere between 6,000 and 4.5 billion years ago, God created the heavens and the earth.  The Bible allows flexibility on the timeline but very clearly makes the point that it was God who created. Before we address the “how ?” or “when?” we’re going to look at the “so what?”

First, God created. The Bible is pretty clear on this point.  God is declared the Creator in the very first verse and then consistently referred to as Creator throughout the rest of the Bible.  Here are a few examples:

 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

 Indeed, ask now concerning the former days which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth…” (Deuteronomy 4:32)

Thus says God the LordWho created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it, And spirit to those who walk in it,” (Isaiah 42:5)

For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (He is the God who formed the earth and made it, He established it and did not create it a waste place, but formed it to be inhabited),” (Isaiah 45:18)

So What?

First, God created everything else that exists; he is unique in his supremacy.  Nothing is as worthy of worship as he is.  It would be foolish to worship an idol (either a literal statue, or metaphorical idol like relationships, or food, or work, or security, or…) because we would be worshiping a created thing which is inherently less worthy of praise than the Creator (Isaiah 42:8, 45:18ff).

The Creator has the right (and, thankfully the wisdom and love), to lead and guide his creation.  It’s our responsibility to submit to his leadership. “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?” (Isaiah 45:9).

When and How? 

Here’s the thing: I don’t really care when the world was created.  The implications of the theology don’t change if the world was created in six literal days 6,000 years ago or if it was created, at least in part, through a process of theistic evolution that began 4.5 billion years ago. Genesis is not an attempt at a footnoted historical book (as we would write a history today) but an obviously biased theological history. This doesn’t mean the contents are false (I believe they’re true) but it does mean that the author(s) are using various literary genres to communicate what happened through a lens of why it mattered for the purpose of teaching theological truth.  And the theological truth of the story of creation is that God existed before anything else and then he created all of the things. This has implications for how we, his creation, relate to him.   When I read Genesis (and the rest of the Bible) I think what it’s trying to tell us is that God created, more than  how, or when he did it.   

Genesis 1 reads like a weird narrative-poetry hybrid. It follows too much of a rhythmic pattern to be narrative but it’s clearly telling a story and doesn’t quite follow normal Hebrew poetry patterns.  So it’s dangerous to read it as either strictly narrative or strictly poetry.  When we read it strictly as narrative we’re lulled into believing that every bit of it MUST be understood as literal (6-24 hour days).  When we read it as strictly poetry we’re tempted to see it as so metaphorical that it may doubt it really happened.  I believe creation happened, and that God did it, because the rest of Scripture affirms that it did (see the verses above, for example) and I believe that the narrative-poetry hybrid nature of the story is an indicator that the author wasn’t trying to tell the story of creation literally, even though he was telling it truthfully which means we can look for the big picture of what he was trying to communicate without getting lost in the details (like how long creation took or how old the earth is).

There are other creation stories in the ancient world (see the bonus material for some links to these stories). When we compare how the creation story in Genesis 1 was written to these other stories we see some stark differences that highlight significant theological truths:

  • There is only one God.  This God is superior to all other things because he created them. In other creation stories there are many gods, often vying for power.  In Genesis 1, there is clearly only one supreme God.  This would be a significant contrast to a polytheistic worldview that all of Israel’s neighbors had.
  • There is a distinction between God and his creation.  It did not exist before he spoke it into existence.  We are not God, God is not us. He may be “in” all things, in a sense, and he certainly sustains all things, but we are different than God.
  • God’s motive for creation was not boredom, or the need for slaves, or anger, or warfare…we don’t exactly know what God’s motive is from Genesis 1, but we know that the result is peaceful, beautiful, and relational.  Humans were not an after thought, or created to solve a problem, we were created, from the beginning, as image bearers with inherent dignity and value. In no other creation story do humans have this honor.
  • By not naming elements of creation like the sun, which instead is called “the greater light to govern the day” God is reminding us that they are creations not worthy of praise.  This stands in contrast to other ancient cultures who had gods that represented or personified elements of creation, like the sun, moon, rivers, etc.
  • God created in an intentional, orderly way.  He did not create in a reactionary way.  He is a the instagator, not the responder.  He is in control.

So What? Revisited

So what does this mean to us?  It sets us apart as one of the few monotheistic religions in the world.  In North America the contrast is not so stark, in other parts of the world it is very significant.  We believe in a unique God who is inherently worthy of our worship.  There is no other god who is close to equal with him and no other thing should command our worship and attention like he does.

And it means that because God created the world, and because he is loving and wise, we can trust his motives and respect his right to govern the world.  We should submit to his hand, even when we don’t understand what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.   This does not mean that we don’t ever have boundaries with other people, don’t push back, don’t protest, don’t try to change things, but it does mean that we are sensitive to God’s leading as to when to put up boundaries, push back, protest or try to change things; sometimes we fight, sometimes we resist, sometimes we just accept what he allows in our path.

Specifically, when we get frustrated with the roles that God has for us or our personal limitations, we don’t shake our fists at him in anger and ask  him why he has put us here or why he has made us like this.  The clay doesn’t really have the right to challenge the Potter.  Neither does that mean it will be easy to accept that he has places us in this role or created us with these limitations.  There may be a lot to be frustrated about, or even to mourn the loss of what could have been otherwise.  But here’s the thing: even if we do shake our fists at him in anger and demand answers, the Potter will be patient with us, he will comfort us, sometimes he might give us insight and sometimes he’ll just remind us that he’s God and we’re not.


Bonus Material

There are other ancient creation stories that have similarities to Genesis 1 like the Enuma Elish (a Babylonian creation story) or the creation story of the Greek gods.  To make matters worse, there are documents that record these stories that are older than documents that contain the creation story in Genesis. The first time I heard this I freaked out a little bit.  I thought that if other cultures had stories that were in anyway similar, and that I could so easily write off as fantasy, than maybe I wasn’t being consistent in my belief of the Genesis creation story. What I’ve come to learn is that even if the Genesis story was written after the others it doesn’t invalidate that God created and that he did through supernatural means.  And it may help us to better understand what the author of Genesis was trying to communicate because we can find significance in how the different authors tell their stories.

creator

 

The Omni-ness of God

“We believe in the one living and true God, both holy and loving, eternal, unlimited in power, wisdom and goodness…”

Omni-, as a prefix means,  “all-” in Latin.  So you can take any word (it’s probably best to use the Latin translation of the word) to make a new word that means all-that-word.  For example, you may remember from elementary school that there are animals who are herbivores (eat plants), carnivores (eat meat), and omnivores (eat all the food).  Here’s the breakdown: omni (all)+vore (one who eats) = omnivore (one who eats all of it).  I am an omnivore.  I tried to find the Latin root for ice cream because I would like to be called “one who eats ice cream” but, alas, Latin is a language that died before ice cream.

So when you see omni words, like omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent in theological writing, you know that it means all-something. I’ve listed some of the more common omni words above and I’ll define a few of them below:

  • omnipotent: all-powerful
  • omniscient: all-knowing
  • omnipresent: being all-places
  • omnisapient: all-wise
  • omnibenevolent: all-good
  • omnitemporal: existing in all-time

These omni words are not used in the Bible (the Bible was not written in Latin) but the ideas they represent are.  The Wesleyan Church’s Articles of Religion don’t use omni words either but, again, they use the ideas they represent and it’s good for your theological education to know what these words mean and why they matter.

Eternal (omnitemporal)

Unlike the rest of the created world, God has always existed.   John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”   He existed independently and chose to create everything else.   This means he is inherently different than us it also means he intentionally created the world because he wanted us. It also means he always has been and always will be.  This world is temporary, our trials are temporary, God is forever.  He is the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega (the A and the Z).

He is bigger than anything we’re facing and has a much longer perspective than we do. I have a six year old.  Right now car rides as short as 10 minutes are filled with commentary like, “This is soooo looong!”  “Are we there yet?” and I want to help her understand that our trips around town are nothing compared to the cross-country trips my husband and I took in college (or even the 14 hour drive from our house to her grandparents house that she’s taken several times).  But she’s six.  And she has a limited perspective.  So she can’t understand that as bad and boring as it seems right now, it’s just a blip in time and will soon be over.

Unlimited in Power (omnipotent)

God can do anything he wants. I cannot do anything I want.  I am bound by time, location, and my inherent capabilities.  Things I cannot do include, but are not limited to, being in two places at once, read people’s minds, go back in time, sing on key.  God can (literally) move mountains.  He can turn the hearts of kings. God can heal those suffering from disease and deliver those in danger.  Because we know he can, and believe he might, we should ask him to.  We can ask God to do big things because God can make big things happen.

Unlimited in Wisdom (omnisapient)

Wisdom does not mean knowing everything, it means knowing how to best use the information and resources you have.  God always knows what the best thing to do is (if there is a best thing).  Because God is all-wise and I am not, I ask him for wisdom.  I ask for wisdom when parenting my daughter.  I ask for wisdom when listening to my husband talk about work.  I ask for wisdom when meeting with people who are asking the church for financial assistance.  I ask for wisdom when preparing to teach.  Even as I write this, I know I should ask for wisdom even more than I do.  James 1:5 reminds me, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you,” and who better to get wisdom from than the one who is unlimited in wisdom?

Unlimited in Goodness (omnibenevolent)

If you have lived (or currently live) with someone who is prone to mood swings (like maybe  a toddler, a teen age daughter, someone who is bipolar) you understand what it’s like to live with relational instability.  You never know how they’ll respond, when they’ll be mad at you, or when everything will be okay.  So you understand the value of a God who is consistently good. He will not suddenly dive into darkness, melt down in tears, or burst out in anger.  He remains constant, good, and you need not fear unexpected changes in mood or character or walk on egg shells around him.  You can walk in peace because his constancy provides stability.

When I surrendered my life to him as a teenager I could do so because I trusted him to be who he said he was, who I’d seen him to be.  I knew he was consistently good and that I could trust that he would continue to be good.

I also believe that he is working all things together for my good.  I don’t believe that everything that has happened to me or around me is good (or even necessary for God’s goodness or glory) but I believe he can take it and use it for my good eventually.  And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28) I believe he works all things together for my good (and the good of those who love him) because he is good.

Theodicy: A Very Real and Important Problem that I’m not Solving in This Post (sorry)

But sometimes life sucks.  Your world gets shattered by death, divorce, cancer, violence, war, betrayal and God does not feel good, or powerful, or wise.  There’s a name for trying to figure out how the omnipotent, omniniscient, onmibenevolent God could allow bad things to happen.  It’s called “the problem of evil” or “theodicy.”  This struggle is real and should not be ignored, discounted, brushed aside or treated with platitudes.  When people are wrestling with God because of evil’s impact on their lives we should allow and even encourage them to wrestle.  We should join them in the wrestling so they are not alone. We’ll address theodicy eventually…but not in this post. If you want to explore more, just google “problem of evil” or “theodicy” and you’ll get a lot of passionate posts and videos to stretch your brain (you don’t have to agree with all of them).

“We believe in the one living and true God, both holy and loving, eternal, unlimited in power, wisdom and goodness…”

What does this mean to you? How have you experienced God’s omni-ness in your life?  Which omni- is easiest for you to relate to?  Which omni- might God want you to experience in a new way?


BONUS  MATERIAL

King Of My Heart doesn’t use the language “omnibenevolent” but it carries the idea…

You are good, good, oh…You are good, good, oh…

Omniscient: I noticed the Wesleyan Church doesn’t say “unlimited in knowledge” instead, apparently, choosing to focus on “unlimited in wisdom” which is a much less common choice for a basic attributes of God list.  I’m not sure why this is.  We do have some Open View/Open Theism theologians (who believe that God knows all the things that can be known but the future is not a thing that exists so it cannot be known) though this isn’t a mainstream Wesleyan view, which may be why that word wasn’t chosen.  I’ll have to look into this some more…

omni-ness