By Pastor Glenn Pease
You would think that any problem dealing with only three numbers would be simple to solve, but when it comes to the doctrine of the trinity where three equals one and one equals three the apparent simplicity becomes profound. Two youths left the church after hearing a sermon on the trinity, and the boy said, "I don't get this business of three in one and one in three." "It's simple," said the girl. "Mother is mama to us, Francis to daddy, and Mrs. Jones to others. She is one yet three."
If the trinity was really that simple, the hardest thing to comprehend about it would be the centuries of controversy over it, and the many heresies that have risen because of it. If you think the trinity is simple to understand, you only prove that you do not yet understand it. The girl with the simple answer did not have the slightest comprehension of the trinity. If it amounts to only different names that God has, there is no way to stop at three. Just as her mother can be called other names, such as sister, cousin, aunt, grandma, lady, and even hey you, so God can be called by dozens of names beyond Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Her explanation explains nothing, and ignores the basic truth that the triune God is in three persons, and not just three names of one person.
If it was only a matter of names and words the doctrine would have met the demand of Thomas Jefferson for simplicity. He wrote in a letter to Timothy Pickering, after hearing Channing, the great Unitarian preacher, and said, "When we shall have done away with the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus; when, in short, we shall have unlearned everything which has been taught since His day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines He inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily His disciples; and my opinion is that if nothing had ever been added to what flowed purely from His lips, the whole world would at this day have been Christian."
He demands that all truth be simple, and charge that Christians have added the doctrine of the trinity onto the teachings of the Bible, rather than finding it there. Since he is not alone on this view, but represents the charge of millions, it is one that calls for a defense. But before we defend the doctrine of the trinity, let us first recognize that some criticism is valid. For example, one of the clearest references in the Bible to the trinity is found in I John 5:7. It is now accepted by most all scholars that this is not inspired Scripture. Even the very conservative notes of Scofield say on this verse, "It is generally agreed that verse 7 has no real authority and has been inserted." No Greek manuscript before the 5th century has this verse, nor is it ever used by any of the Greek or Latin fathers in all their writings in defense of the trinity.
Erasmus, a Greek scholar in reformation days, refused to put it in his Greek New Testament even though it was in the Latin version. When he was criticized for this he promised if anyone could show him a Greek manuscript with it in, he would put it in his next edition. A late Greek manuscript was found, and he kept his word, and against his better judgment put it in. That is how it got into the King James Version, for it followed that edition.
Let us then be honest and admit that it is possible that men have made errors, and have included in the Bible what is not inspired. But let the critics be equally honest and recognize that what has been added, though not inspired, is no less true. We will admit that the Bible nowhere mentions the word trinity, but this in no way detracts from the fact that God is there presented as a trinity. We ought not to ask the skeptic to believe anymore than what the Bible teaches. This verse ought never to be quoted as proof of the trinity, for it is not needed. Thomas Jefferson demanded that we go back to the simple teaching of Jesus. Let us do just that.
Let us go back for example to His final words to His disciples before He ascended. He gave them the great commission and said, "Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Jesus did not teach a Trinitarian concept of God, He presupposed it, as does the whole New Testament. B.B. Warfield, the great evangelical scholar, said, "The doctrine of the trinity does not appear in the New Testament in the making, but as already made." You cannot read the New Testament without seeing the necessity for believing in the trinity. It is everywhere assumed that the Father is God; the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.
It is this concept of God that makes Christianity distinct and unique. The radical theologians of today who are throwing out the concept of the trinity are right when they say it is a stumbling block to others. The Jews cannot accept it, nor the other religions of the world. It is uniquely Christian doctrine, and you cannot sacrifice this truth to promote unity with non-believers. The folly of this is comparable to a group of modern doctors who want so much to win the friendship of a cult that believes only in taking water for illnesses that they take out all the ingredients of modern medicine, leaving only the water. In coming down to a common level with the cult they have won unity, but they have lost all the advantages of progress. So Christians lose all that is uniquely Christian if they give up the trinity for the sake of unity.
We have an obligation to better understand this doctrine lest we be subtly lead astray. It is so easy to be heretical on this doctrine, and it is so easy just to ignore it. I trust this brief study of the mystery and meaning of the trinity will help us to avoid both.
I. THE MYSTERY OF THE TRINITY.
The reason the trinity is such a profound and difficult subject is in the very nature of the matter, and of the tools we have to work with. To fix a car with all the modern equipment is one thing, but to do it with a putty knife is a radically different challenge. Such is the challenge of a finite mind trying to grasp an infinite truth. God understands it, for He has an infinite mind, but anything resembling that is conspicuously absent in man. This means that by necessity a full comprehension of the trinity must remain a mystery. There comes a point where, when we wade out into the sea of theology, the legs of reason can no longer touch the bottom, and we must launch off on a swim of faith. There is a sense of security when we can touch bottom, and it is certainly easier, but as in swimming, so in theology, the real fun and adventure is not in wading but in swimming out into the deep knowing that you will be able to remain on the top even though your feet cannot touch bottom.
The trinity brings us to a sea of truth so deep and wide that the poet has said,
So God the Father, God the Son
And God the Spirit we adore,
A sea of life and love unknown,
Without a bottom or a shore.
Cyril C. Richardson wrote, "It has been observed by denying it one may in danger of losing one's soul, while by trying to understand it one may be in danger of losing one's wits." We know that Paul only saw through a glass darkly, and so we cannot expect to see more, but what we can see and understand will be sufficient, for God has enabled us to grasp what He wants us to know, and gives us His Holy Spirit to enlighten us. Our prayer then should be that of Milton in Paradise Lost.
And chiefly Thou, O Spirit.....
Instruct me, for Thou know'st, Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat'st brooding on the vast abyss,
And mad'st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine; what is low raise and support.
With this prayer preceding, let us consider-
II. THE MEANING OF THE TRINITY.
The word itself means threefoldness. It became a description of what God is out of the experience of the early Christians. They experience Jesus as God, and the Holy Spirit as God, and, therefore, there were three Persons they had relationship to as God. No one sat down to figure this out; it just grew out of God's self-revelation in history through Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. You would think this would be such a radical new concept that the pages of the New Testament would be filled with controversy over it. But we do not see this because it was not that radical. In the Old Testament God made it clear there were no other God's. The Jews were under obligation to be strict monotheists. They were to say daily, "The Lord our God is one Lord." Yet, Elohim, the Hebrew word for God, is in the plural indicating plurality within the one God. In the New Testament monotheism is not bypassed. God is still one and there is no change in this at all. There is only one God, and that truth must be preserved at all cost. The difference is, in the New Testament God reveals fully what the plurality is of His own nature. He revealed that He is three Persons.
Now get this straight: There are three Persons in one God, and not three Gods. If there were three Gods this would be called tri-theism, and this is a heresy. There is only one God and that one God is in three Persons. The only reason this seems hard to grasp is because we come to these words with preconceived ideas that cause us to make problems for ourselves that are not really there. Until we can think of these terms as relating to God in a unique sense, we will think of them as they relate to us, and we will be confused. The whole thing becomes easier to grasp by getting a proper definition of God in our minds. When we start with God defined as three eternal and equal Persons with all the attributes of love, wisdom, justice, etc., it should be easy to see how three Persons can be one God. It is only hard because we start out with a wrong definition of God. If you start with a definition that God is a Person you are headed for problems. If God is only one Person, then to say this one Person is also three Persons is to deserve the contempt of the unbeliever, for it is meaningless.
Let us look at how this works on other things. Let us start, for example, a study of the tricycle, and let us begin with a definition that a tricycle is a motorless vehicle with one wheel. Now with this in our mind we proceed to look at the facts about tricycles, and we are told right off that the basic fact is that they have three wheels. Now we are confused. Our reason cannot grasp this contradiction. It seems incredible to believe that a tricycle can be one wheeled and three wheeled at the same time. The doubter will reject it, and the gullible will say I will accept it by faith. Both, of course, are wrong, and all because they started with a wrong definition. If they would go back and start with the definition that a tricycle is a motorless vehicle with three wheels, then the facts are easy to reconcile. One tricycle equals three wheels, and three wheels equals one tricycle. It is simple when you start right.
Three can equal one in many ways, just as four, five, or any other number. There are four quarts in one gallon. There are twelve inches in one foot. There are endless examples. All of this would only be confusing if you said, four quarts equals one quart, or twelve inches equals one inch. This is what many people think of when they think of the trinity. This is what Thomas Jefferson called the incomprehensible jargon of Trinitarian arithmetic. He was right, but he was rejecting an error, and not the truth, when he thought he was rejecting what the trinity really is. When we get it into our head that God has revealed Himself as a Three Person Being, and not a one Person Being, we will no longer have the problem of those who begin with a wrong definition of God.
The three in one is illustrated in many ways. If you have three lights on in the room, there is only one light filling the room. It is impossible to separate the light coming from any one of the bulbs. The light from all three are so blended into one that they are one, even though three. So it is with the three Persons in the trinity. They are so one that it is hard, if not impossible, to separate them and see them in isolation from the other two. They are one in all that they do. There is nothing that one does that is not the will of the others. Just as a three leaf clover is not three clovers but one clover in three leaves, so God is one God in three Persons. Like the light from three different bulbs, they so blend together that they are perfectly one. The Father is not a trinity, the Son is not a trinity, and the Holy Spirit is not a trinity. It is God who is the trinity and it takes all three to be God. If you take away one of the wheels it is no longer a tricycle and if you take away two of the wheels it is not ever a bicycle, but a monocycle. So the One God is in Three Persons and all of them are necessary to have the God revealed in the Bible. Take away one or two and you have a different type of being than the God of Scripture.
Reality is filled with analogies of the trinity. All can be divided into space, matter and time. Time can be divided into past, present and future. Matter can be divided into animal, vegetable, and mineral. Space can be divided into length, width, and height. Water is composed of three atoms=2hydrogen and 1 oxygen. and it can be in three states of solid, liquid and gas. Life is a Trinitarian process with mother, father and child as a result.
The issue is simply this: Is God a being who has dwelt for all eternity alone in the solitary confinement of nothingness, or is He a being that can never be alone because He is a trinity, and thus, self-sufficient and complete in Himself, and capable of eternal fellowship within His own being? If one denies this greater concept of God, which He has revealed Himself to be, then he has to reject the deity of Christ, and this is to deny the Christian faith. The whole of the Christian faith depends upon the truth of the trinity. It is a mystery, but greater is the mystery of trying to understand the Bible without the doctrine of the trinity. If Jesus and the Holy Spirit are not God, why does the Bible give them all the attributes of God, and why are we to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? It may be a profound doctrine, but compared to any other explanation of what the Bible reveals, it is profound simplicity.