Trinity: The paradox in the middle of Christianity.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 April
TRINITY 'trɪn.ə.di noun. The godhead as one God in three people: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
[Trinitarian trɪn.ə'tɛr.i(.)ən adjective.]

In the scriptures, from the very beginning of the scriptures, it’s strongly emphasized that YHWH, the LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, is one. Israel was to have no other god.

Deuteronomy 6.4-5 KJV
4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: 5 and thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
 
Exodus 20.3-6 KJV
3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5 thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

One God. No other gods. Got that?

Well, Israel didn’t always get that, which is why the LORD let their enemies conquer them, drag them off to Assyria and Babylon, and keep ’em there till it finally sunk in. After which, idolatry wasn’t so much the problem anymore; hypocrisy was. Still is. But I digress.

Okay, one God. Till we get to the gospels, and the teachings of Jesus, and the rather obvious statements from the gospels that Jesus is actually, literally, YHWH. Jn 1.1 But, y’know, he’s now human. Jn 1.14 He came to earth and walked among his people, and explained who God is so we’d understand him better. Jn 1.18

Yet Jesus talks about his Father, “whom you say is your God.” Jn 8.54 They’re two different people. But wait… wasn’t it spelled out in the Old Testament how there’s only one God? Weren’t the Israelis dragged off to exile because they refused to acknowledge this?

Then Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit. He’ll pray to the Father, who will send us this παράκλητον/parákliton, “helper, assistant, advocate” (KJV “Comforter”) who’s gonna both dwell among us, and in us. Jn 14.15-17 It’s also made pretty explicit this Holy Spirit is likewise God. So there are three different people who are God. But wait… one God, right? Unless the Israelis got sent into exile for nothing.

This idea of three people (or to use the way theologians much prefer to put it—and rebuke me all the time for not putting it—three persons) who are nonetheless one and only one God, is called trinity. And it’s the hardest concept in Christian theology. It’s brought far wiser men than me to ruin. It’s based on two ideas, both of which are absolutely true. And both absolutely contradict one another.

  1. There’s only one God.
  2. Three individual people—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.

“Wait, no, it’s not a paradox.”

Whenever I describe the trinity as a paradox, I get objections. Partly because they don’t understand what paradox means:

PARADOX 'pɛr.ə.dɑks noun. A seemingly self-contradictory or absurd statement (which, when investigated, may prove to be well founded).
2. A statement which, though sound, leads to a conclusion which appears senseless, illogical, or self-contradictory.
3. A situation which combines contradictory qualities.
[Paradoxical pɛr.ə'dɑks.ək.əl adjective.]

They think paradox means illogical. Really it means something appears illogical. Three people are one God sounds illogical. But it’s how the scriptures describe Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Three people. Not modes, not other gods, not lesser beings which we only call gods. One God. But three people. But one God.

Others are gonna object, “It’s not a paradox, because it’s not really a contradiction. See, when you think about the trinity this way….” and then they proceed to give an explanation which appears to sort everything out. Though nearly every time, their “explanation” knocks down one of the two ideas: “Three people” aren’t so much three people; or “one God” isn’t exactly one God.

Upholding both ideas, without favoring one or the other, is part of Christianity’s struggle. And let’s be honest: Some of us have simply given up. You get some churches where they’re all about how God is One; so much so they never talk about trinity. (For that matter, they never talk about the Holy Spirit either. They don’t even know the Holy Spirit. That’s a whole other problem.) Other churches are all about how God is three… and sometimes they’ve chosen a favorite! And Jesus is their favorite (which stands to reason; we are Christians after all). Or the Holy Spirit’s their favorite. Or our Father’s the favorite… and they like to call him Papa and Daddy and Abba and imagine themselves curled up on his lap like a toddler at story time.

Hey, humans are creatures of extremes. We don’t even bother with the struggle to juggle the ideas, and pick a side… and sometimes follow it into error and heresy. We act like there’s not really only one God (or there is—and it’s the Father, and the Son and Spirit are lesser beings). Or we act like the other people of the trinity are irrelevant, or simply God in “Son mode” and “Spirit mode.”

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 must collapse. As if Christ and his apostles and prophets Ep 2.20 are that flimsy. So they seek explanations. They don’t mean to be heretic (well, usually don’t); they’re just trying to find a way out of the paradox. Paradox weirds ’em out, man! They’re entirely 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.” Jm 1.17 KJV Who created a reasonable, understandable universe. He’s reasonable and understandable. Easily explainable. Definable. Controllable…

Yeah, I went there. ’Cause it’s part of the problem too, innit? We don’t want a God who’s too conceptually hard for us. Why? Because we’d imagine we have no handle on this relationship—and therefore 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.

To such people, theology isn’t so much about trying to accurately understand God as he is. It’s about drawing limits round him: This is who God is, that is not. 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. Theology is a box to stuff him in. And 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 really is. How’re we gonna box that up?

Bad analogies.

Since the idea of trinity makes a lot of Christians squirrelly, we’ve gone out of our way to explain how God can possibly be One Yet Three without contradiction.

LIKE A SHAMROCK! Supposedly St. Patrick came up with this one: God’s like a shamrock. One plant, three leaves.

Thing is, it just leaves us with the image of one God with multiple body parts. God with three heads, like the weird multiple-headed beasts in Revelation. Or God as conjoined triplets. Thing is, conjoined people are not one being; they’re two, but stuck together. It ultimately doesn’t work in a whole lot of ways.

IT’S NOT 1+1+1; IT’S 1×1×1. This was my high school youth pastor’s favorite explanation: Stop adding and start multiplying!

Of course, to anyone who really knows mathematics, it’s a stupid answer. ’Cause 1×1×1 means you have one instance, of one instance, of one. Or three dimensions… and hey, wait, I’m three-dimensional; does that make me a trinity? Nope.

Doesn’t explain God so much as it reveals a lack of intellectual depth. But hey, shallowness never stopped shallow people from tackling the trinity idea.

GOD MAKES MORE SENSE IN MORE DIMENSIONS. In Edwin Abbott’s novel Flatland, a two-dimensional triangle in a two-dimensional universe (where everything’s flat, called Flatland) discovers a three-dimensional sphere. It freaks him out. He can only perceive slices of this sphere, and as it moves up and down his plane, the slices appear to grow and shrink. The sphere bumps him into its universe, where suddenly the triangle can now look down upon his universe and see into everything… and this likewise freaks him out. It’s a worldview he never expected, and struggles to describe to others.

One of my theology professors loved this book and had us read it, and posited God the very same way: God has another dimension which we can’t perceive either, and we can’t explain without a serious struggle. But thanks to this dimension, he can be Three Yet One. It’s not a struggle in four-dimensional space.

Problem is… this once again means the three people are multiple body parts. Their extra-dimensionality only makes them look like three people to us. Ultimately it denies their separate personhood.

MODALISM. About a century ago, Oneness Pentecostals gave up on the trinity idea and adopted modalism, the belief God isn’t three people, but only appears to be: Sometimes he operates in Father mode, sometimes Son mode, and sometimes Holy Spirit mode. Because he’s limitless, he can appear to be in three places at once, and looks like he’s three… but he’s only one.

I wrote a whole article on this. Basically it’s God with multiple secret identities. Like Batman. Usually he’s Batman. But sometimes he takes off the costume, acts like a billionaire idiot, and goes by his birth name of Bruce Wayne. And other times he disguises himself as a gangster called Matches Malone so he can infiltrate the underworld. Three different modes. One Batman.

But Batman isn’t really three different people.

GOD’S LIKE WATER. My mom’s favorite analogy is how water regularly appears in three states of matter: As solid ice, liquid water, and gaseous water vapor. And God’s sorta like that.

Yeah, 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 people. Neat, huh?

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 people, 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 really 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, it’s a μυστήριον/mystírion, “mystery.” Unlike the mysteries in the bible—which God has explained to us Christians, so they’re not really mysteries anymore!—he hasn’t explained trinity.

The best explanation we Christians have been able to come up with, is to say God’s one οὐσία/usía, “being, substance” and three ὑποστάσεις/ypostáseis, “persons, foundations.” So his oneness and threeness describe different things about him; not the same thing. Problem is, usía and ypostásis are ancient Greek synonyms—so yeah, the ancient Christians were kinda fudging it. It’s still a paradox.

And we have to accept it. More: We’ve gotta base our faith, our relationship with God, our religion which furthers this relationship, and the future of our existence, upon it. Not simple, nor easy.

Ordinarily we humans barely struggle with contradiction. We live with ’em all the time. (Hypocrites certainly do!) We juggle ideas, juggle lies, 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. That’s way harder. We’ve got it in our heads that perfection means “without contradiction”—and yet we have a perfect God, who’s kinda got a big contradiction in what he is. His character’s consistent, but his structure itself is kinda… well, unclear. We’ve tried to sort him out, and can’t do it without wandering into heresy.

But if we wanna be an orthodox Christian, we gotta resist the temptation to oversimplify 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 lesser gods. Don’t go unitarian. The Holy Spirit is God. Christ Jesus is God. The Father 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; just not you. (Yet.) 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.

So try.