Be wary of anyone who says they have a simple, logical explanation.
- Trinity /'trɪn.ə.di/ n. The godhead as one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- [Trinitarian /trɪn.ə'tɛr.i(.)ən/ adj.]
The Trinity is the hardest concept in Christian theology. It’s brought far wiser men than me to ruin. It’s based on two ideas. Both are absolutely true. And both absolutely contradict one another.
- There’s only one God.
- Three individual persons—Jesus, his Father, and the Holy Spirit—are God.
Got that? Good. Hold both ideas in your head at once. Accept and believe both. Never dismiss one idea in favor of the other, or try to explain away one by using the other. And there ya go. That’s the trinity.
“Well no,” some folks are gonna object. “It’s not a contradiction at all. See, when you think about the trinity this way, the ideas don’t really contradict. It’s like this….” Then they proceed to give their explanation, which appears to sort out everything, but really does what I just told you not to do: It knocks down “There’s only one God” a little bit, in favor of “Three persons are God.” Or vice-versa.
Whichever idea’s their favorite, that’s the one they really support. ’Cause humans are creatures of extremes. Every single “simple explanation” does this. Either people subtly think there’s not really one God; or the Father, Son, and Spirit aren’t really individual; or they’re not really God—only the Father is, and the Son and Spirit not so much. In some wacky cases, people undermine both ideas, and are completely buggered.
Don’t be too hard on such people. They mean well. But they were raised to believe Christianity must be absolutely consistent—and if any part of it isn’t, the whole house of cards will collapse. As if Christ and his apostles and prophets
Paradox weirds people out.
Those people who try to offer explanations don’t mean to be heretic. (Well… usually don’t. Some of ’em do. They think the orthodox view is all wet, and the 20 centuries of Christian thinkers who struggled with it are all morons. They’re pretty sure they know better. But they’re a whole other issue.)
The well-meaning heretic is just trying to find a way out of the paradox. They’re pretty sure there shouldn’t be any paradox smack in the middle of Christianity. We have a logical, consistent, orderly God, “with whom is no variableness, no shadow of turning.”
Yeah, I went there. ’Cause it’s part of the problem, isn’t it? We don’t want a God who’s too far beyond us. He’d be too hard for us to relate to, or have relationship with. Why? Because we’d have no control over this relationship. A god without boundaries—even logical boundaries—might push us to believe things, try things, do things, we’d never dream of doing. Frightening. So let’s not go there. Theology shouldn’t be about trying to understand God as he is, but about drawing limits around him. This is who God is, that is not, and once we’ve constructed our intellectual fence, God’s been properly domesticated. You know the children’s song. “If I had a little white box to put my Jesus in…”? Like that. So we can take him out… and put him back in when we’re done.
We want a relationship with God entirely on our own terms. Paradox implies that’s not possible. We can’t understand what, at his very core, God is. How’re we gonna box that up?
So the idea of trinity makes a lot of Christians squirrelly. They’ve gone out of their way to explain how God can be one, yet three, without contradiction.
- God’s like a shamrock. One plant, three leaves. Supposedly St. Patrick came up with this one. But it just leaves us with the image of one God with multiple body parts. God with three heads, maybe.
- The trinity isn’t
1 + 1 + 1. It’s 1 × 1 × 1. This was my youth pastor’s favorite explanation. Of course, to anyone who really knows mathematics, it’s a meaningless answer. It means you have one instance, of one instance, of one. Doesn’t explain God so much as it reveals a lack of intellectual depth.
- God makes sense in more dimensions. In Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, a two-dimensional being discovers a three-dimensional being, and it freaks him out ’cause he can’t explain the way this third dimension manifests in two-dimensional space. One of my theology professors posited God the very same way: He has another dimension which makes him impossible for us to explain. Problem is, this’d once again mean the three persons are multiple body parts. Their extra-dimensionality only makes them look like three persons, but they’re not.
- Modalism. A century ago, Oneness Pentecostals gave up on the trinity and adopted
modalism, the belief God isn’t three persons, but only appears to be: Sometimes he operates in Father mode, sometimes Son mode, and sometimes Holy Spirit mode. And because he’s infinite, he can appear to be in three places at once, so he looks like he’s three, but he’s only one. We don’t realize he has multiple secret identities. Like Batman: Sometimes he’s Batman, sometimes Bruce Wayne, and sometimes Batman’s undercover alias of Matches Malone.
- God’s like water. Water regularly appears in three states of matter: As solid ice, liquid water, and gaseous water vapor. And God’s sorta like that. This is my mom’s favorite analogy, but it’s just another example of modalism.
My own favorite analogy likewise falls apart when you push it too far. I swiped some of it from C.S. Lewis: God’s like the author of a novel. The novel’s been written in first person (“I was strolling through the park one day, in the merry month of May…”) so the author sorta wrote himself into the story. He’s a real person, but he’s also the narrator of a book, plus he’s a character in the book: Three persons. Neat, huh? But where it all falls apart is the narrator and character are creations of the author. They don’t have free will; they’re fixed in the book to forever do as the book says they did… in other words they’re not individual persons, like Jesus and the Holy Spirit are.
Every analogy of the Trinity breaks down. Doesn’t matter how clever our stories are, or how simple they make God sound: We’re trying to explain a paradox. And we can’t. Wouldn’t be a paradox otherwise.
Go on. Embrace the paradox.
The trinity forces us to believe in a contradiction. A paradox. As the ancient Christians used to describe it, a mystírion/“mystery”—one God hasn’t given the solution to. Not only do we have to accept it, we’ve gotta base our faith, our relationship with God, our religion which furthers that relationship, and the future of our existence, upon it. Not simple, nor easy.
Ordinarily we humans barely struggle with contradictions. ’Cause hypocrisy. We juggle lies all the time. We switch our opinions whenever they become politically or economically inconvenient. We don’t even mind those inconsistencies in ourselves—we know we’re not perfect.
But now we’ve gotta juggle truths—and that’s way harder. We’ve gotta deal with contradictions within God, and that’s a struggle because we have a warped idea of what “perfect” means, and try to squeeze God into that idea. God ought to be more consistent than we are, right? Better, finer, purer? Well he is, when we’re talking about his character. (That’s what that whole “shadow of turning” bit from James was about.) Trinity only describes God’s structure. Even so: A paradox in our description of God just isn’t good enough. We need to sort him out.
And we’ve tried. The ancient Christians had council after council where we hammered out what we do know, what we can correctly and authoritatively say about him. It’s just a paradox is the best we’ve come up with. Specifically:
- One God.
Dt 6.4We describe him as usía/“being” or “existing.”
- Jesus is God.
Jn 1.18 NASB
- Jesus’s Father is God.
- The Holy Spirit is God.
- Three distinct individuals:
- The Father begets the Son.
- The Son sends the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father.
Jn 15.26(Western Christians also say the Spirit proceeds from the Son. Eastern Christians don’t.)
- We describe these individuals as ypóstasis/“person.”
He 1.3The word also means “foundation, substance, real nature, subject-matter, that which settles at the bottom.” KJV
- So: God is one being. Yet three persons.
The Athanasian Creed goes into a bit more detail, but you get the general idea.
Here’s the gist: Yeah it’s a paradox. We can’t sort it out so it’s not. We can only try our best to accept the truths we have—and hold up both ends of the paradox. ’Cause our usual tendency is to go too far in one direction or the other.
Most Christian heretics go
But if you wanna be an orthodox Christian, you gotta resist the temptation to simplify God, and in so doing, go wrong. Embrace the mystery. Live with the fact God is complicated. Don’t reduce the Holy Spirit, or Christ Jesus, to masks God puts on when he feels like messing with us humans—or worse, to lesser gods. The Holy Spirit is God. Christ Jesus is God. And God is one. Tricky but true.
I’ve known many Christians who get frustrated with the idea. I once had a student throw up her hands: “That doesn’t make sense. It can’t be true. So I don’t believe it.” I had to rein her back: “No no no. We don’t just reject something because we don’t understand it. That’d mean you have to throw out your phone because you don’t know how it works. Somebody knows how your phone works, but you don’t know it. Same with God. He knows how the trinity works. We don’t. May never know it. But that’s okay.”
Yep, it’s a faith thing. We gotta take God’s word for it.
And the reason the trinity is at the heart of Christian theology, is because faith is at the heart of Christian behavior. Its our litmus test: If we can’t believe the one, we can’t really practice the other.