Reflections by Douglas S. Huffman
Professor of Biblical & Theological Studies
The second article of University of Northwestern & Radio’s doctrinal statement, cited above, is titled “The Godhead” and covers what we recognize as the doctrine of the Trinity. If you’re like me, the threefold unity (or “tri-unity”) of the Trinity is one of those topics that, when someone asks me about it, makes me smile the kind of smile that says, “No matter what I say in response to your question, we both will be dissatisfied with my answer.” You see, the Trinity is something we will never fully comprehend and so we will always fall short in attempts to fully explain it. Nevertheless, there certainly are a few things we can say about the Trinity—if nothing else, we can at least say what God says to us about the Trinity in His Word—and there certainly are a few practical applications that we can draw from this teaching of Scripture.
I have come to appreciate the simplicity with which Wayne Grudem has expressed the doctrine of the Trinity in his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994) (see pp. 226-61). Grudem notes that the Bible clearly teaches the following three things:
- God is three persons (e.g., Matt. 28:19; John 14:26; 15:26; 2 Cor. 13:14; 1 Peter 1:2).
- Each person is fully God (e.g., the Father in John 1:14-18; the Son in John 20:26-31; the Holy Spirit in Acts 5:3-4 ).
- There is one God (e.g., Deut. 6:4-5; 1 Kings 8:50; Isa. 45:5-6, 21-22).
Each of these statements is understandable and clear enough. Furthermore, while we might not understand how the three statements work together, it is clear to us that they are not contradictory—after all, the contradictory statements, not found in Scripture, would be 1) God is not three persons, 2) Each person is not fully God, and 3) There is not one God. But the Bible does not give us contradictory statements; it simply gives us the positive statements, whose inter-workings are admittedly difficult for us to completely comprehend. But, we can see that the biblical doctrine of the Trinity does not require us to believe any contradictions.
Interestingly, throughout Church history, whenever people have tried—even with good intentions—to come up with a simple solution for how the Trinity works, heresy has been the usual result. For example, various forms of Arianism deny that Jesus is fully God, saying He is a created being adopted into divinity (adoptionism) or that He is eternally inferior to God the Father (subordinationism). These simplistic attempts to understand the Trinity have resulted in heresies that deny the biblical claim that each person of the Trinity is fully God (statement 2). Others have suggested that God simply shows up in different forms (or modes) to do different tasks: He is the Father when He does creation; He is the Son when He does redemption; and He is the Holy Spirit when He empowers His people. But the idea that the one God (statement 3) is fully God (statement 2) who simply appears in different forms ends up denying the biblical claim that God is three distinct persons (statement 1) and this is called the heresy of modalism.
So, there is one eternal God, existing in three persons, each of whom is fully God. To try to say too much more might only get us into trouble. We are ultimately called to love and serve and worship and enjoy the Trinity, not to comprehend it. In fact, to fully comprehend the Trinity, a person would need to be a member of it. (And to my knowledge there is no search underway to replace any of its current eternal members!)
Well, a clear point of application for us may be what NOT to do: Don’t try too hard to comprehend doctrine of the Trinity in its complexity and don’t try to over-simplify it either. As someone once observed about the doctrine of the Trinity:
Try to explain it, and you’ll lose your mind;
But try to deny it, and you’ll lose your soul.
But I think there are several—dare I say—even more practical application points of the doctrine of the Trinity. Let me outline like this in three personal statements for each of us:
1. I should be respectful of the Trinity in how I speak. This seems like a “no-brainer.” After all, one of the 10 Commandments is that we should not use God’s name in vain (Exod. 20:7). But let me be more specific here and suggest that we need to be careful not to confuse the persons of the Trinity with regard to their roles. Perhaps the most common heresy today is one that shows up in evangelical churches and homes on a weekly basis . . . and it shows up in our prayers! Without launching into a detailed discussion of Whom we can address in prayer--clearly we can address the Father in prayer (e.g., Luke 11:1-4) and Jesus as well (e.g., John 14:14), but what about the Holy Spirit?—let me focus rather on how we pray regarding the roles of the Trinity. For example, if we pray something like, “Dear Jesus, thank you for being our Father who died for our sins and now lives in our hearts,” we are mixing up the roles of the Trinity. God the Spirit lives in believers, not God the Father. God the Son died for our sins, not God the Father (the heresy has the name “patripassionism” because it renders the Father as the One suffering). Thus, I need to be careful how I pray.
2. I can be encouraged that love is eternal. Because the eternal Trinity has been in a loving and harmonious unity forever, I can see that loving relationships are not a temporal invention. While perfect and harmonious love may not be my constant experience in my relationships with other people (family, friends, co-workers, and others), love is real. And the Trinity has invited me know and experience this real love. What joy and comfort this can bring to us (see 1 John 3:1-3)!
3. I can be encouraged about the possibility of unity in diversity. The eternal Trinity has been in constant harmonious unity while its members still maintain their distinct roles in the work of creation and redemption. Because of this, we can be assured that unity is possible in all of the variety we face on a daily basis. After all, as one friend has said it, diversity is a fact and not a goal. Consider the beauty in the variety of diverse musical notes and diverse musical instruments that work together in a symphonic production. Or consider the beauty in the variety of diverse colors and textures and materials and features of a wonderful piece of art or architectural expression. Or consider the appeal of the tremendous variety of business plans, accounting forms, feasibility studies, and fund-raising projections that can come together to produce a multifaceted unity-in-diversity business endeavor. Think about your department—with its wide variety of co-workers, tasks, skills, interests, and abilities—with all its diversity working together toward the same set of goals. That harmony in unified diversity is eternally grounded in the triune Godhead.
It seems to me that noting this should be encouraging to us. How so? Well, if you are like me, perhaps your work sometimes has more diverse variety than you can handle at a given moment. Perhaps the various pieces of your life and work are not functioning harmoniously together. When such disharmony happens, we can take these moments (days and months) to God and call on Him to help us achieve some sense of unity in the chaos we feel. Perhaps there are priorities we need to adjust and disharmonious elements that need to be changed. Such disharmony does not happen in the Trinity, but—as we have established—we don’t fully understand the Trinity nor do we consistently reflect it rightly in our lives. But the very fact that the Trinity contains harmonious diversity encourages us to not give up hope in having that Triune God bring His kind of unity into our lives.
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is overall and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:3-6