The well known Christian author, Jim Packer, lectures in systematic theology at Regent’s College in Vancouver. One of his former students says that Packer started every class by saying, ‘Arise, friends, let us sing the Doxology!’ After singing and a word of prayer, he would then say to his students, ‘The goal of theology, friends, is doxology’.
Today we begin a series on the Trinity. As we refine our understanding of the majesty and splendour of God, it should inspire us to worship him with renewed vigour and understanding. If you should think that studies in theology are an empty, cerebral pursuit with no application for the workplace or the retirement village, then repent now and forever hold your peace. If you should think that a study in theology is beyond your intellectual capacity, then you misunderstand the Spirit of God.
A former Principal of Moore College, T.C. Hammond, wrote a short book on Christian doctrine called, ‘In Understanding Be Men’. This title echoes Paul’s words in 1 Cor 2:12, ‘We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us’. God has freely given to us the truth of his being which is Trinity. It is in the Bible and so it is there for our edification so that we may glorify God which is the purpose of our lives and the goal of all creation.
Dr. Packer’s devotional approach to theology is evident from his choice of textbook which is Millard Erickson’s ‘Christian Theology’. Here’s an excerpt:
Because God is a person, our relationship with him has a dimension of warmth and understanding. God is not a bureau or a department, a machine or a computer that automatically supplies the needs of people. He is a knowing, loving, good Father. He can be approached. He can be spoken to, and he in turn speaks (Christian Theology, 296).
Now that’s the kind of doctrine that moves us away from an empty and removed view of God. Two young people in love will often say to one another, ‘Tell me more about yourself’. The same is true of relationship with God. The more we learn about him, the happier we become. So Jesus said, ‘And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’ (John 17.3)
Are you interested in moving from theology to doxology?
Our starting text is in the Book of Romans. So turn with me, please, to Rom 1:18–20. In this section, Paul is arguing that the Gentiles who have not received the revelation of the law are nevertheless accountable before God. For outside the experience of Israel, God reveals himself in the natural world. Verse 18, ‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (And how has God made it plain to them?) 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’.
Creation bears the imprint of its Creator. God who is invisible stamps upon his world evidence of his eternal power and divine nature. This general revelation is clearly seen so men and women who claim ignorance of God have no excuse. The brightness of the sun, the forces which produce the tides, the blast of massive volcanoes. This incredible power reflects the eternal power of God and should lead us to worship him.
This is exactly what happens in Psalm 104. First, the psalmist recognises the power of God in creation. ‘O Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendour and majesty […] The moon marks off the seasons, and the sun knows when to go down. You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God’ (Ps 104:1, 19–21). Here is the power of God in creation—to order, to control, to sustain. Then, second, the psalmist responds to the awesome power of God by worshipping him, ‘I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to God as long as I live’ (Psalm 104).
God’s eternal power is clearly seen in creation and so men and women have no excuse. And then Paul says in verse 20 that God’s divine nature is also on display. All of God’s glorious attributes which can be visibly seen are represented in creation. This world is an exhibition of God’s power and his wisdom and his goodness. Remember Job who wants wisdom? The Lord gives him wisdom by pointing him to creation. ‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand […] Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place? […] Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water?’ (Job 38).
And on the lesson goes on and on which leads Job to conclude, ‘Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things to wonderful for me to know’ (Job 42:3).
Creation tells us that there is a wisdom belonging to God alone. The wisdom and goodness needed to bring forth the seasons and determine when the doe bears her fawn—and to do this day after day after day. In Romans 1, the Apostle rolls these observations together: God’s eternal power and divine nature are displayed in creation. Creation is an icon which points to God. The 16th century reformer, John Calvin describes the world as ‘a mirror in which we ought to behold God’.
Since the world reflects the glory of God, and since God exists in Trinity, it’s reasonable to suppose that there will be hints in creation that God exists in three persons. So in what way does creation testify to the Holy Trinity? It is not possible to argue the details of God in three persons by simply looking at the universe. However, creation foreshadows that there is one God who exists in three persons. For when we look at the world we clearly see unity in diversity and diversity in unity. Here is the hint, the reflection, of God’s divine nature represented in creation.
When I was in High School we studied science. My favourite experiment was making a volcano and watching it erupt without burning the science building down. We also did experiments with light. If you pass light through a prism, it spreads out into a series of colours—from red to orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. The process is reversible. If the colours of the spectrum are mixed back together the result is white light. Unity in diversity and diversity in unity. This doesn’t prove the Trinity, but it mirrors the God who is unity in diversity.
Music demonstrates unity in diversity very clearly. Western classical music emerged from a culture shaped by Christianity and so its central features mirror the works of God—purpose, movement towards a goal, resolution. Unity in diversity is heard when a variety of instruments combine to produce one integrated piece. In chamber music, the various instruments can be heard distinctly within the overall score.
Its interesting that two major challenges to the gospel today are both deviations from the principle of unity in diversity and diversity in unity. Islam represents unity without diversity. And so Allah is a solitary God who exists in unity only. Islam begins with a rejection of the Trinity as repugnant to reason. Jesus, according to Mohammed, is no more than a human prophet. Allah is one and he has no need of a son.
C.S. Lewis points out in ‘Mere Christianity’ that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God is at least two persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, he was not love because he had no-one to love (Lewis, 174). In Islam, God is a single person and so there is virtually no room for love, certainly no love for sinners. So the Islamic doctrine of God is centred on power and will.
On the other side of the coin, postmodern culture represents diversity without unity. Postmodernism rejects absolute truth because no-one can look at the world with absolute neutrality. So all truth, it is argued, is someone’s truth which is really only opinion. The great, human dream of science progressing humanity is exposed as a fraud. The dream of a united mankind has been splintered by world wars, the great depression and terrorism. Reason has been replaced with emotion. We live in a highly fragmented and diverse world.
In some quarters, Christian belief follows this trend. The rise of the charismatic movement reflects the fragmentation of postmodernism and the reliance on emotion above reason. Postmodern theology is difficult to pin down because of its diversity. Some of us are used to hymns which follow a linear, verse by verse pattern. However, postmodern music replaces this pattern with circular and repetitive choruses. So we have syncopated music.
The postmodern world is one of instability, diversity and disintegration. Since there cannot be objective truth, there can be no fixed point to help us with what we should believe or how we should act. The result is a world in a constant state of flux, pushed along by ever changing developments in technology.
The doctrine of the Trinity corrects beliefs which either abandon unity (such as postmodernism) or abandon diversity (such as Islam). From Rom 1:20 we see a creation which mirrors God who is unity in diversity and diversity in unity.
The big conclusion is that the doctrine of the Trinity is fundamental to understanding the gospel and to living as a redeemed people in this world. Broughton Knox says in the introduction to his book, ‘The Everlasting God’:
The doctrine of God is of the utmost importance, for it controls the whole area of life. As a person thinks about God, that is to say, as he thinks about ultimate reality, so his standards of behaviour, values and relations with other people are determined. (The everlasting God, 11)
What we think God is like determines the way we live. And we all think something about God—even the atheist has a firm view! If I think of God as a strict and hideous taskmaster, I will live in fear all my days. If I think God is just another ‘good mate’, then I’ll treat him with indifference and I’ll never understand holiness.
The great Puritan, John Owen, says that the Trinity is the Christian’s greatest moment because it concerns the eternal welfare of the soul (Owen, ‘The Glory of the Trinity’, 4). Then much later, Macleod says that the doctrine of Trinity ‘is crucial to our understanding of both God and man. And it is the model for the way we should live, particularly in our relations with one another. Only a proper understanding of it can produce a sense of mystery, the devotion of God and the true humanism which are the essence of religion’ (Macleod, Shared Life, 9–10).
Now remember that the Old Testament is like the building, the New Testament puts the roof on the building. You really can’t have a roof without a building, and its silly to have a building without a roof. The single most important doctrine in the Old Testament is the unity of God, Deut 6:4, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one’. Most of Israel’s neighbours believed in many gods—the god of the sun, the rain, the thunder, the fields, the seas—each had their own god. The unity of God was really important for Israel so they wouldn’t stray into idolatry and polytheism.
For these reasons, the doctrine of the Trinity is not directly taught in the Old Testament. But once we know that God exists in Trinity we can see hints of it throughout the Old Testament and particularly in the account of creation. Flip back with me to Genesis 1. We have already seen that God’s divine nature is imprinted upon creation. This is where it all begins in Genesis 1.
‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (a summary statement). ‘Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters’ (Gen 1:1–2). Creation begins with the earth formless and empty. The spirit of God is the agent of God in creation. Then God speaks and there is separation—the land from the sky—the earth from the seas. There are occupants created to fill this space—the moon, the stars, the plants and wild animals.
When we get to the sixth day, there is a pause in verse 26 when God says, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground’ (Gen 1:26). Who is the ‘us’ in this verse? Who is God speaking to when he says, ‘Let us make man in our image’?
Some scholars suggest that God is having a conference with the angels. But people aren’t made in the image of angels. In light of the whole of Scripture, we can say that verse 26 refers to a deliberation between Father, Son and Spirit. Mankind is not the outcome of blind chance, but he is made to rule the world in the image of the triune God.
This means that fundamentally it means we are relational beings. As the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are persons who relate to one another, so we are built to have relationships. We are designed to be in relationship with this world—to rule the world (Gen 1:26). We are designed to be in relationship with one another—‘for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife’ (Gen 2:24). And we are designed to be in relationship with God—Adam and Eve walked with God in the cool of the day (Gen 3:8).
Relationships are fundamental to the Trinity and an essential part of our constitution. We are wonderfully made in the image of a triune God. And this has at least three implications for us.
The first point is ‘equality’. All human beings are of equal worth because each of us bears the image of the triune God. Gen 1:27 says that this is true regardless of sex, ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’. Much later on, Paul says in Acts 17:26, ‘From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth’. So each of us bear God’s image whether we are employed or unemployed, schooled or unschooled, black skin or white skin, successes or failures, rich or poor, married or single. Whenever we see a human being, we see a person made in the image of God. Certainly this image has been distorted in the Fall, yet we are reminded in Jas 3:9 that we remain made in the likeness of God.
The second point is ‘diversity’. Each person in the Trinity has something which is true of him alone and distinguishes him from the others. So while we share a common humanity, each of us is a unique individual. We are unique genetically. We are unique in temperament. We are unique in gifts. Even our fingerprints are unique. And God expects us to accept our individuality as a gift from him.
Certainly there are times when we despise ourselves, as Job did when confronted by the wisdom of God, ‘Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes’ (Job 42:6). Woody Allen is reported as once saying, ‘My one regret in life is that I am not someone else’. There are times when we think this way. But this is very different to total self-rejection and wholesale denial of our person. You have been created as an individual in the image of God. We can celebrate the diversity of people we have in this congregation.
The last point is ‘community’. The fact that we bear the divine image of God in three persons means that we are made for fellowship. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit live in community and they fellowship with one another. One earth, Jesus surrounded himself with relationships—his friends were male and female, he related easily to children, he chose the twelve disciples and within them he had closer friends.
All this stands in contrast to our society’s emphasis on self-fulfilment and independence. Often it’s as though we can only reach our full potential when isolate ourselves from relationships or seek to aggressively control them. And so young people leave home and cut themselves off from family. lovers who refuse the commitment of marriage. The world, and sadly some with the church, build relationships with clear escape routes because we are afraid of commitment and other-centeredness. This is not the Trinitarian pattern. The three persons of the Godhead share a common being, a common purpose and a common authority. They have exclusive relationships and they have irreversible commitments to one another.
We’ve covered a lot of ground this morning. But take heart, there are only really three things that have been said—which is what you might expect from a talk on the Trinity. The first point is about the importance of understanding the Trinity as best as we are able from the Scriptures. You’re view of God shapes your whole life. So spend some time refining you’re understanding of God in three persons because this will strengthen your faith in him and encourage you to worship him with a sense of freshness.
Then we looked at the Trinity in creation. We saw that the divine nature is a trinitarian nature which is mirrored in creation—unity in diversity and diversity in unity. The heavens declare the glory of a triune God. And lastly, we saw that we, who belong to creation, have been made in the image of a triune God. We briefly considered how this affects our human character.
‘This is the Catholic faith’, the Creed says, ‘That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity’. Our aim is to glorify and enjoy a triune God and make him known.