The doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery that has been the subject of debate, controversy, and misunderstanding for two millennia.
Part of the difficulty is that although traces of the Trinity run throughout the warp and woof of Scripture, God’s holy Word contains nothing explicit about it. But perhaps our larger problem is that as limited, “this-worldly” humans, we lack cognitive associations, experiences, and symbols to grasp how three beings can be one, yet somehow distinct.
C.S. Lewis picks up on that point in his poem, Footnote to All Prayers. There Lewis writes that when we “attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring, Thou,” we unwittingly blaspheme with feeble and inaccurate representations of the Divine. What’s more, Lewis suggests, “all men are idolaters,” because they visualize God and worship him in man-made metaphors.
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With that in mind, and in the knowledge that some of the greatest minds in history have struggled to explain the triune Godhead, I will not attempt to do so here. That’s because our challenge is not to “understand” the Trinity, but to accept it as a mystery that is central to the nature and character of God.
Among world religions, past and present, Christianity stands apart. No other metaphysical belief system has a God who is both transcendent and immanent—one who is over all and who has “pitched his tent” with us.
Bare monotheistic traditions, like Islam, hold that God is transcendent, but not immanent. He is a cosmic Enigma who distances himself from his creation, leaving man to figure out how he can be placated to avoid punishment or gain reward.
In ancient polytheism, the gods were not omnipotent deities but Olympian heroes who exhibited the same flaws and foibles as their earthly counterparts. Their temperamental and petulant encounters with man made it difficult to determine, G.K. Chesterton once remarked, “about which [was] the hero and which [was] the villain.”
For pantheistic traditions, “God” is the universal force, energy, or spirit through which “all is one, and all Divine.” Although God is immanent, he is neither transcendent nor personal. He’s that all-pervading, supersensible something that must be “tapped into” to discover and master the techniques of spiritual evolution.
Absent are doctrines of original sin and substitutionary atonement, or any notion of divine grace. Salvation, whether that means winning favor with a silent and distant deity or actualizing one’s divinity, is a matter of moving up the escalator of merit through individual effort.
By contrast, the Christian God is neither silent nor remains an astronomical unit away. He communicates in the unbroken speech of his revealed Word while seeking communion with man. It is a fellowship expressed in intimate word-pictures, like vine and branches, father and children, and bridegroom and bride.
While, in other belief traditions, man must pull himself up by his own bootstraps and get right with God, in Christianity, it is God who reaches downward to make men right. Men are not expected to earn God’s favor by demonstrating their worth—instead, God seeks to win man’s favor by demonstrating the unfathomable dimensions of his love.
And that brings us to the Trinity.
Like other monotheistic deities, the Christian Godhead is transcendent, omnipotent, and omniscient. Those are the attributes we normally think about when we read Paul’s words: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). But since tri-unity is at the essence of the Godhead, we should expect that divine quality to be, also, stamped on those things “clearly seen.” And indeed, it is—at every level.
At the cosmic level, the universe consists of three things: space, time, and matter—each, themselves, having three integral components.
Space exists in three dimensions: length, width and height. Time consists of the past, present and future. Matter is made up of three sub-nuclear ingredients: quarks, leptons and bosons, each uniquely defined by three parameters: electronic charge, mass, and magnetic spin. What’s more, atoms contain three things: protons, neutrons, and electrons. And, if that’s not enough, all protons and neutrons are made up of three quarks. Am I sounding like a broken record or what?
At the chemical level, water—the major molecule of biological life—is an example of matter with distinctive triune qualities. Consisting of three atoms (two hydrogen and one oxygen), water can exist in solid, liquid or gas forms without changing its chemical makeup. Three forms, the same essence.
But wait! As explained by Einstein—you know, his E=mc2 relation—matter is energy and energy, matter. And, you guessed it, energy comes in three varieties: the strong-nuclear, the electro-weak, and gravitational.
Finally, each of these grand components—space, time, and matter—are intricately woven and interconnected in the unified fabric of spacetime. A single, integrated essence. Confounding, isn’t it? Just like the Trinity.
At the human level, experience and common sense tells us that we are more than material machines. Matter and energy follow determined paths according to physical laws. But we have choice and free will. We also have thoughts, affections, and aspirations that transcend deterministic laws. This suggests the ultra-physical or, what we call, spirit. When combined with mind and body, spirit completes our human nature mirroring the triune Godhead.
Consider the following verses of scripture:
“Who has understood the mind of [Yahweh]…”
“The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God…”
“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”
Notice how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit correlate and communicate, with our triune design. From the infinitesimal to the infinite, a trinitarian thread runs throughout the fabric of creation.
So what’s the significance of this?
At the heart of the matter is the character of God, which has been under attack from the beginning. After God completed his creation work declaring it good, Satan proceeded to “poison the well.”
Despite God’s warning to Adam about eating from the forbidden tree, Satan sashayed up to his companion with some been-around-the-block advice:
“Let me clue you in Eve. That stuff about ‘you will surely die’—it’s bluster. Here’s the thing: God likes his power and the control he has over you and … he’s not about to give it up. So he goes around thundering out empty threats in hopes that you’ll be intimidated. Look at me—do I look scared? Now then … about that fruit—it tastes really good with a little coconut milk.”
From the Garden to the present, the charge has been the same: God can’t be trusted. He’s a toothless tiger who jealously guards his position by withholding good things from us: things that are fun and pleasurable; information and experiences that would enable us to achieve our own divinity.
It’s as if God’s wholeness depends in some way on his creation. Without underlings to obey him and worship him, God would be less than God. Yet such is not the Christian God who from eternity to eternity is perfect and complete in all aspects. To him, nothing can be added and from him, nothing taken away. As he himself declares, “I the LORD do not change” (Mal. 3:6). And that pertains to his love, as well.
Because God is changeless, creation is not needed to complete or express his love. Rather, God’s love exists in full within the triune Godhead. For it is there, in the eternal Community that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit participate in their perpetual fellowship.
So rather than a project of a lonely God in need of adoring sycophants, creation is the labor of a loving God who wants to share, not withhold, the good things he has prepared for those who love him.
“No eye has seen nor ear heard, or mind conceived what God has prepared for them who love him.” (1 Cor. 2:9)