I had the unexpected opportunity to teach an adult class on the Trinity at our church this week. Here are my notes that I jotted down.
The Bible affirms the reality of one God who eternally exists in three persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We take this to be true on the authority of Scripture. However, from those other two “legs” of the stool (reason and tradition), we have significant tools from which we can begin constructing a coherent picture of the Trinity.
- First, the Trinity is not tri-theism/polytheism: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are one and the same substance, not one and the same person (hence monotheism). “Person” is an individual instance of a substance (e.g., humanity versus instance of a human person).
- “If God were not personal, he could not be merciful (things do not show mercy); but if God were just one person, then love of the other would not be central to his being. There would have been nobody in eternity for him to love. Thus the only God inherently inclined to show mercy is the Father who has eternally loved his Son by the Spirit” (Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity, p 112). Consider 1 John 4:8, “God is love.” Here are some thoughts on Reeves’ quote:
The highest form of love is not love of things or love of self, but love for another.
Personal love presupposes a triad: 1) a subject (Lover); 2) object (the Loved); and 3) the Love expressed between subject and object.
Elsewhere Scripture affirms God is the same for all eternity and that he exists independently of his creation.
Hence, God is an eternally loving community of Persons, each of whom share fully in one divine substance.
- Consider also: “A musical chord must consist of three different notes, namely the first, third and fifth notes of a given musical scale. For example, the chord of C major is composed of the notes C (the first note or root), E (the third from the root), and G (the fifth from the root). Each individual note is ‘a sound’, and all three notes played together are likewise ‘a sound’. Hence a chord is essentially three sounds in one sound, or one sound essentially composed of three different sounds (each of which has an individual identity as well as a corporate identity).” [Jeremy Begbie, paraphrased]
- Theologians refer to two aspects of the Trinity: 1) immanent Trinity 2) the economic Trinity: The immanent Trinity has to do with who God is in himself and how each person of the Trinity relates to the other. The economic Trinity has to do with how God relates to his creation and the different but complementary roles played by each of the members. Whereas the immanent Trinity is shrouded in mystery (although I’ll soon introduce a term that will help us conceptualize this inner dynamic of God), the economic Trinity is revealed to us throughout Scripture and in our personal lives.
- The primary idea that distinguishes each of the three Persons is the manner of their respective origins. The Father begets; the Son is eternally begotten; the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. There is no sense in which the Father existed chronologically prior to the Son, since that would entail a time in which the Son did not exist and the Father was not a father. Likewise, any point at which the Son was suddenly begotten in time or had a beginning in time would entail some change in God, which is impossible for an immutable being. Whereas the Father is uncaused, the Son does have a cause but that cause is God the Father who eternally begets or “causes” the Son (also known as “eternal generation”). And since the Son shares the same divine essence as the Father, then, coextensively, the Son is not created nor does the Son have a beginning. Unlike the Son, the Spirit is not begotten but eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son or through the Son (cf., the sixth century filioque addition to the Nicene Creed. See https://goo.gl/iCW0LL). The Son “imparts” or “communicates” the Spirit on behalf of the Father. In short, the Father is independent and without cause, whereas the Son is eternally dependent upon the Father as his cause, and the Spirit is dependent upon both Father and Son and finds his cause in the Father through the Son. There was never a time in which the Son and the Spirit did not exist because the Father eternally begets the Son and the Spirit eternally proceeds from both Father and Son (or Father through Son).
- Perichoresis: peri…means ‘around,’ and chorea…means ‘dance.’ Intrinsic to this term is “relationship” or interrelatedness. Thus, perichoresis can be understood as a “divine dance” where the Three-in-one participate in a never-beginning, never-ending movement of perfect harmony. Perichoresis could also be described as a “mutual indwelling” that entails “identity and difference” [examples include: light and brightness; words and sound; musical chord. ]. Nowhere is the idea of perichoresis better illustrated in creation than in the divine dance of God’s redemptive purposes. It is the Father who plans our redemption (Jn. 3:16; Gal. 4:4; Eph. 1:9-10), the Son accomplishes our redemption (Jn. 6:38; Heb. 10:5-7; Eph. 2:13; Col. 1:20; 1 Jn. 1:7), and the Spirit applies the blessings of our redemption (Jn. 3:5-8; Acts 1:8; Rom. 8:13; 15:16; 1 Cor. 12:7-11; 1 Pt. 1:2). Though each Person has a distinct role, all three Persons are identical to the one true God and are fully present in the performance of our redemption that is eternally played out in our lives by the mind and heart of the triune God.
- Finally, we must embrace our conceptual limitations. Scripture is cautious not to give a complete or comprehensive picture of God’s nature and character (Ps 139:6, 17-18; Is 55:8-9). Scripture affirms that God is powerful, just, good, et al. But the line between what God does and what God is remains so thin that we’re left with the external operations of God while the inner nature of God’s being remains largely hidden to us. Moreover, Scripture tells us more about what God is not (called apophatic theology), than what God is in his essence. For example, God is not finite, not created, not limited in power, not with a body, et al.