I Believe in the Trinity
Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Isaiah 6:1-3, Matthew 28:16-20
For the past 1600 years the Christian church has been using some very strange language about God. It began to use the strange language of mathematics that caused many outside the church to look with puzzlement at these strange theologians turned mathematician. The church said God is One, but God is Three. He is three-in-one and one-in-three. They said things like The Father is God, Jesus Christ is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. But there is only one God. And the Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father. But there are three persons in the one God. Talk about a strange doctrine. This has been a scandal to every religion and many sects of Christendom.
Now neither the scriptures nor the Apostle’s Creed use the word “trinity”. The creed simply says “I believe in God the Father … and in Jesus Christ His only Son … and I believe in the Holy Spirit.” The early church simply worshipped the three persons they had encountered in life, without trying to work out in what way one God could be three persons.
But later the Apostle’s creed was expanded and there the full idea of three persons being one God was announced in the Nicene Creed composed around A.D. 325
1. What we do not believe
Obviously we need to investigate what the ancient church meant. But we need to look first at what they did not mean to teach.
Because the entire matter was not reasonable to some, they suggested some alternatives that were intended to remove the mathematical mystery.
Those of Gentile background said 1 + 1 + 1 = 3. Therefore we have three Gods who share rule in the universe. That made mathematical sense. It also was compatible with pagan religions who also had different Gods for different functions. These people said that somehow these three gods cooperated together to rule the universe.
The Christian church responded; that’s not what we mean at all! There are not three gods, there is only one.
Those of Jewish background said that what we really have in One God, who wears three hats. The one God reveals himself in three different ways. In the Old Testament he acted as a Father, in the time of Jesus he acted as our redeemer, and since then he has continued as The Holy Spirit our counselor. One God in three phases. Other’s said he is One God who has three different roles. Just as I am a father and a son and a husband at the same time, so God is creator, redeemer and Counselor at the same time.
Again the Church responded; that’s not what we mean at all! There is only One God, but He is three persons, not one person with three jobs.
2. What then do we believe?
There is only one God. But God is more complex that we ever understood.
In the Old Testament, when Israel faced a world of many gods, The God of Israel had to educate them to believe in One God. The most important text of the law, called the Shema, was to be written on parchment and placed on the forehead, or tied to the wrist, or fastened to the doorpost and the gatepost of their homes. These words were to be so prominent in the thinking of ancient Israel that it would become the bedrock of their faith. What was the text? “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is the only God, and you shall love the Lord with all your heart.”
But once that lesson had been thoroughly learned, and it took over a thousand years for that lesson to sink in to the minds of that ancient people, God was ready for the second lesson.
Jesus Christ entered into our world. A dozen men encountered him and knew that he was unlike anyone or anything they had ever encountered. Nature was subject to him. The forces of evil were overcome by Him. He taught like no one else had ever taught. Health followed in his wake. There was a serenity in him and a self-confidence that told them that he was no mere man. Then he was killed by his foes, yet miraculously was resurrected, and their first impressions were confirmed and strengthened. They had encountered God in Him. The Divine one had shared life with them. After the resurrection they worshipped him as God.
But how could he be God, when he acknowledged the Father to be God? They couldn’t explain it, they simply knew that in Jesus they had encountered God himself.
After his ascension they experienced the giving of the Holy Spirit. It was not long before they discovered that The Holy Spirit was the presence of God with the church. But how can He be God too? They did not know how, they just knew that – that The Father was God, Jesus was God and so was the Holy Spirit.
But they also knew that there was only one God. They began to realize that God was more complex than those early lessons had indicated.
3. The Mystery of God.
It took quite a while for the Church to find ways to express what they had experienced. But as they began to think about this mystery it began to make sense. Not to their heads, so much as their hearts.
There were things about life that made them think that perhaps the idea that one God could be three and at the same time one, was not illogical and preposterous.
If God had made the universe, then the stamp of his own nature would be written into the very fabric of life. If God had made the worlds surely the fingerprints of his own complexity would be built into the very fibers of our existence. It did not take long for the church to see the signs that pointed to God’s nature.
- Man, made in the image of god is one, and yet composed of body, mind and spirit.
- We live in a world that is composed of land, sea and air.
- Matter in one, yet it is composed of animal, vegetable and mineral.
- Space is one reality, but it has its three dimensions: length and breadth and height.
- Time is one reality, but it has past, present and future.
- Light is one, but a prism reveals its three primary colours.
- matter is reduceable to a solid, a liquid or a vapour, just as H20 can be solid as ice, liquid as water and a vapour when heated.
- Even government has its executive, legislative and juidicial elements.
- Philosophy concerns itself with truth, beauty and value
- Goodness is the combination of faith, hope and charity.
The church began to understand that there is in God a simplicity. He is one. He is unified in himself. And yet He is complexity. As an amoeba would have trouble understanding the complexity of a human, so we that are human have trouble understanding the complexity that is God.
But let me remind us, that a God that we have figured out, would not be much of a God. A God who could be comprehended would not be sufficient for us. But a God that I can apprehend, that is something different.
What is the difference? Imagine a very large circle. It is so large that I cannot embrace it. My arms are not long enough. I cannot comprehend it. But I can take a hold of that circle. I can apprehend it.
I cannot comprehend many of the complex things that make my life richer. I use a computer in my office. I drive a car, I fly in planes, I use a microwave. But I know next to nothing about how they run. But to use them, I do not need to know all about them. I do not comprehend them, but I can apprehend them and find my living enhanced.
God, the tri-une God, is beyond my imaginings, but not beyond my experiencing! Thank God.
As Paul writes to the Galatians, he says to them, “After you have known God, or rather are known of God, how can you turn back.” He knows the difference. He knows that no one understands God. The Good news is that God knows us. God is not comprehendible, but He is apprehendable. God is so great. We are so small. But God makes Himself available to us.
Paul writes to the Philippians, “I press on to take hold of that for which Jesus Christ took hold of me.” I cannot understand it all, but I can take hold of the One who has taken hold of me. Christ has taken a hold on me, which helps me to take hold of God.
When the Church says, “We believe in the Trinity”, it never claimed to understand it. It is the name of a mystery, not a deciphering of a mystery. It simply uses this language to declare that God, our God, is far greater than any conception of Him. And the church would rather live with mystery, than embrace error. But the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that God is far greater than all our conceptions and all our theology, and that is not a bad thought with which to conclude this chapter.