What is the Trinity and Why Does It Matter?
Some time ago, I encountered a poll on social media about the most difficult doctrine within Christian theology. To me, it was a simple answer. The Trinity. The belief that there is one God and that God consists of three persons: Father, Son and Spirit. If our children or grandchildren wrote down 1+1+1=1 on their math test, they probably would not get a good grade. It is a difficult concept to get our mind around.
A number of years ago, I read the Qur’an, the holy book for Muslims. It is good to seek to understand what others believe. but one of the things that I notices is the constant attack on the Christian idea of the Trinity. In fact believing in the Trinity, called Shirk, is the worst sin in Islam.
More recently, I got to know a Jewish rabbi. We got into a theological conversation and he admitted that he felt much more in common with Muslims than with Christians. Christianity is not just Judaism plus Jesus, with the Trinity it is a radically different concept of God.
The Trinity is a vital part of the Christian faith. It is what distinguishes orthodox forms of Christianity from unorthodox ones, such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is important and yet it is one of the least frequently discussed. Perhaps because it takes so much work to understand. We are going to take a look at the Trinity, what it is, and why it is important to us as Christians.
What is the Trinity?
When I talk to my Jehovah’s Witnesses friends, they like to remind me that the word “Trinity” never is mentioned in the Bible. I then remind them that the world “Bible” is not mentioned in the Bible either but that doesn’t mean that we don’t believe in the Bible. The word Trinity was first mentioned by an early church father named Tertullian. However, the question is not about the word but about the concept.
I can tell you what didn’t happen. The early church didn’t look at the simple unity of God and determine that it was too boring. They didn’t decide that the Father, Son and Spirit were all divine just to liven things up. Nor did they see the three as comprising just one God as a way to create headaches among theologians. Either belief in a simple unity or in three gods would have been easier than the Trinity. So where did it come from?
There are two reasons why Christians believe in the Trinity. The first reason is about two observations found within Scripture. The first is that the Bible, Old and New Testaments strongly affirm that there is just one true God. Not one main God and a couple of junior gods, but one God. At the same time, the Bible also affirms that the Father, Son and Spirit are all divine. While it may be obvious with the Father and Son, the Bible also affirms that the Spirit is personal and not just a force. So the Bible teaches that there is one God and that the Father, Son and Spirit are all God. The best explanation is the Trinity.
The second reason is that there are a number of passages that place all three persons in parallel, as if they are of the same kind. The passage may say Father, Son and Spirit or may say God, Lord and Spirit. These passages don’t make sense if we interpret them as the real God, a half-god and a force. The way they are used only make sense if all three references are speaking of the same one God. The passage from 1 Corinthians 12.
So what is the Trinity? The Trinity is the belief in one God, a God that is not a simple unity but rather a complex unity, a God who is comprised of three persons. Imagine tossing a chunk of ice into a red hot pan. Almost immediately, you would have the water in its solid, liquid and gas forms at the same time and yet it is all the same water. That is an imperfect illustration of the Trinity but it gives us an idea of how one thing could also be three things at the same time.
Why Does It Matter?
It is a fair question to ask why we should even care. Why not just leave this to the theologians and we can just focus on being the church. I would like to suggest that an understanding of the Trinity helps us to be the church.
As a church we seek to be in relationship with God. That is what we do on Sundays, we gather to worship and praise God. Surely that includes some element of what God is really like. Any time we want to deepen a relationship with another person, we usually seek to learn more about them. That is just a natural part of a relationship. Why shouldn’t that be the case for our relationship with God? If we love God, we should want to understand him as much as our finite minds will allow. That may be hard work but the relationship is worth it.
One of the favourite descriptions of God, not just be Christians, but by people in general is “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) This description actually requires a trinitarian faith. It doesn’t say just that God loves but that he is love in his essence. And what God is as his essence cannot depend on the existence of his creation, including humanity. God can be love because as Trinity, there is eternal love between Father, Son and Spirit. John shares with us about God being love to spur us on to lives of love. If we are adopted children of God, we should be like our Father and live to love.
The passage we looked at in 1 Corinthians 12 is another example of how the Trinity is practical. In 1 Corinthians, Paul is addressing a church that is divided and ineffective. He is seeking to rebuild their unity and in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul describes the church as the Body of Christ. The church is meant to include both unity and diversity. We don’t need to be identical, but we need to be working for the same divine purpose. Paul says that the spiritual gifts come from God, Lord and Spirit, that is the Trinity. The Trinity is the ultimate example of unity and diversity. The Father is not the Son is not the Spirit but they are the same God. We should celebrate the diversity within the church, a diversity united by the same purpose. The church is meant to reflect who and what God is. Jesus talks about something similar in John 17. Jesus prays for the future church and his prayer is for unity. He describes the unity he wants as that which exists between the Father and the Son. The unity and diversity within God is the model for the church.
I understand that the concept of the Trinity is confusing. It is tempting to put it aside and focus on simpler concepts such as helping the poor or loving our neighbour. But the Trinity is not a fringe belief that can be accepted or rejected. The Trinity is essential, not just for Theologians but for all Christians.
Not only does the Trinity tell us about the God that we love and worship, it gives us a picture of what the church is supposed to be like. The Trinity is all about diversity and unity and that is exactly what the church is meant to be like. We can never achieve the same level as the Trinity but it does give us a standard to aim for.