Written by Doug Ponder on May 17, 2013
Why Do We Need the Trinity?
For more than seventeen centuries Christians have used the word Trinity to describe God’s basic nature. It is a term that speaks to God’s three-in-one-ness: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
The doctrine of the Trinity has always had a few objectors. Some claim that the concept isn’t true because the word isn’t found in the Bible. These people need to realize that words like Bible, atheism, and theology aren’t found in the Scriptures, either, but that doesn’t make them untrue. Others object that the doctrine isn’t stated plainly enough (for them) in any one verse. Perhaps these people have never tried to summarize their lives with a single sentence before. (Try it, and see how well you fare.) Some things are so rich and complex that an entire book is required to describe them adequately.
In truth, however, the biggest objection to the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t concern whether it is true, but whether it is useful (or helpful). It’s like the fellow who says, “I’ve gotten this far in my life without knowing that sort of thing, why should I bother to learn it now?”
Simply put, many think understanding God’s identity isn’t all that important unless it is useful for something else. Of course, it is “useful” for understanding a few things (as we shall see in the conclusion), but that shouldn’t be our primary concern. Rather, we ought to wonder how that fellow would feel if his wife said to him, “It’s just not useful for me to learn much about you.” Their marriage isn’t likely to last long. Real relationships, it seems, require that we know at least something of the other person’s identity. And God’s identity is Trinity.
But suppose that someone says something terrifically stupid like, “Doctrine divides, but Jesus unites.” Overlooking the irony of their own doctrinal statement, we could ask in turn, “Who is Jesus?” Now if they respond, “Jesus is the one who saved me,” there still remains a slew of follow-up questions: How did Jesus bring about this salvation? And what is salvation anyway? And who must Jesus be, if he is able to save in that way? And who must God be, if that is true of Jesus?
In other words, a faith that is serious about seeing the practical aspects of statements like, “Jesus saves,” must journey back to the question of who God is and what he is like. That journey leads us right to the doorstep of the Trinitarian God who made the universe.
What or Who Is the Trinity?
Talking about the Trinity can be confusing. First, the word Trinity itself is used in two different ways. Sometimes the word refers to the doctrine (teaching) that describes God’s existence. At other times, however, the word refers to God himself, not our thoughts about God. Both uses are correct, when used in context. The basic point here is that we must not think that God is equivalent to a set of propositions (statements) about God. God is God. What we say about him may be right or wrong, but our statements about him don’t change who he is.
The second reason it’s tricky business talking about the Trinity is that our existence differs from the nature of the Trinity’s existence. Whenever you see a human being you also see one human person, for each human being is a human person. But it’s not like that with the Trinity. The Trinity exists as one divine Being in three divine Persons. Humans = one being, one person. The Trinity = one Being, three Persons.
Here’s how a theologian would describe the life of the Trinity:
God exists as three persons.
Each person is fully divine.
Yet there is only one God.
Or you could say it like this:
The Father is God, but he is neither the Son nor the Spirit.
The Son is God, but he is neither the Spirit nor the Father.
The Spirit is God, but he is neither the Father nor the Son.
If that seems a little confusing, well, you’re in good company. Christians throughout history have tried to explain the doctrine with easier-to-understand analogies or word pictures. Some of these are able to capture certain truths about God’s nature, but none of them are perfectly fitting. In fact, some of them are quite bad and deeply misleading. Among the less helpful analogies are those that make God seem like something that can be dissected (e.g., the analogy of the three-leaf clover and the analogy of the egg) and those that make God seem like just one person acting in three different positions (e.g., the analogy of a man as husband, father, and worker, as well as the analogy of water as ice, liquid, and steam).
There are no perfect analogies for the nature of God as Trinity. Perhaps that is why the Scriptures do not give us one outright. Still, the analogy of marriage gives us a few hints and glimpses of what the interior life of the Trinity may be like. (Some theologians think that Ephesians 5 renders the analogy of marriage an “authorized approximation” of Trinitarian relationships, though they are careful to point out that it is still just an approximation.)
When a man and a woman marry, they become “one flesh” according to God. They do not lose their personalities, but they do shed their individual lives before God. They share one life now. They are two persons, but one flesh. They share one bed, one house, one bank account, the mutual responsibility to care for each other, and so on. Their union is so close, in fact, that wherever the husband goes, his wife can be said to be “there” even without being present (by virtue of his vicarious representation).
In a similar, but not completely analogous way, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit are distinguishable persons who share one common life as God. The members of the Trinity are in complete agreement in all that they do, working together in a perfectly harmonious and complementary way. While the roles of the Father, Son, and Spirit are unique, their union is so perfect that the Scriptures also repeatedly say, “The Lord is one.”
Where Do We See the Trinity?
We see the doctrine of the Trinity throughout the Scriptures. In some places it is subtle, in other places it is obvious. Some verses emphasize the “threeness” of the Trinity, while others emphasize the unity of God.
The opening chapter of the Bible contains the following words: “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (Gen. 1:26). Note the subtlety of the Trinity’s presence: “God [singular] said, “Let us [plural] make man in our [p] image [s], after our [p] likeness [s].”
The basic prayer of every faithful Israelite and the centerpiece of Israel’s worship were the words, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). Jesus reaffirmed these when he spoke about God (Mark 12:29), but he also spoke of the shared glory he had with his Father before the world existed (John 17:5). That same glory, Jesus said, is lavished on him by the Holy Spirit, who works alongside God the Father and God the Son (John 16:14-15). Who can share God’s glory? No one. Who existed before the universe? God alone. So when Jesus says that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are equal in glory, he is making a statement about their essential tri-unity as God. Each person remains unique in role yet united in presence and purpose.
At Jesus’ baptism the heavens opened up, and the Spirit of God took the form of a dove to rest upon him. Then from heaven a loud voice declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:16-17).
The Great Commission that Jesus gave to his followers reads, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matt. 28:19). Close readers will notice that relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit is so close that Jesus shares they share one “name.”
Paul the apostle writes, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6).
To those who are willing to accept the testimony of Scripture, the verdict is plain: There is one God who exists as three persons. The Father is called “God” (1 Cor. 8:6). The Son is called “God” (John 20:28). The Holy Spirit is called “God” (Acts 5:3-4). Yet, different works are ascribed to the Father, Son, and Spirit. For example, Peter the apostle said that his readers were chosen “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood” (1 Pet. 1:2). Paul adds, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14).
What Does Belief in the Trinity Change?
The first words of Scripture tell us, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Why did God create? Was God lonely? Was God bored? Was God empty or incomplete? Did or does God have needs?
The doctrine of the Trinity answers “No!” to all of those questions. It’s true that God cannot be God without relationships, but it doesn’t follow that God needs to create in order to have them. After all, as one Christian author eloquently puts it, “God has the endless dance of perichoresis, the ceaseless exchange of vitality, the infinite expense of spirit upon spirit in superlative, triplicate consciousness” (Cornelius Plantinga, Engaging God’s World, 22). In everyday speech, he’s saying that the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that God has enjoyed a communal life for eternity. Like an endless dance of three partners in which each lavishes love and glory upon the other, the life of God has no need or lack of any kind. (For who can beat the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit?)
The tri-personal love of God, therefore, doesn’t need anything else for completion. As a result, we should never present the gospel in such a way that makes it seem like God is begging us to return to him so that he can finally be happy again. God is not depressed, bored, or lonely without us. Thanks to the eternally rich fellowship of the Trinity, God is the happiest Being in the universe.
The Trinity, therefore, clearly shows us that our salvation is not a matter of completing God’s happiness, but one of completing ours. We were made to know the Trinitarian God of the universe who reveals himself in Jesus and through the Scriptures. God made us to know him and to worship him. Our life falls apart when we give ourselves to pursuing something other than him. That is why Augustine wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
The Trinity also changes how we understand the relationship between value (worth) and function. The spirit of the times says that your value is directly related to what you do or what you have. If you are successful and important, you are seen as valuable. If you are creative and intelligent, you are seen as valuable. If you have a job that is respected in society (a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist), then you are seen as valuable. The mantra of our time is that your value comes from what you do or have.
The Trinity shatters that lie. The differing roles and responsibilities of the Father, Son, and Spirit exist without any diminishing of their equal glory and worthiness to be worshipped. The Trinity proves that value does not come from what you do, but from who you are. In our case, we are people created by God and for God, and redeemed by God for God. Our value, our worth, comes from that and that alone.
Practically speaking, consider the following example. If a mom decides to stay at home to raise her children, she suffers no loss in value whatsoever. (Regardless of what feminists may tell her.) But it would be equally wrong for her friends to console her by saying, “It’s OK. You just ‘switched jobs.’ Your new ‘job’ is being the best stay-at-home mom you can be.” Their words are poor advice. All they’ve done is switch her value search from her career to her kids. This will leave her with the same feelings of stress, disillusionment, and self-doubting. Instead, she needs to know that the Trinity is proof that her value comes from who she is (a woman created in the image of God), not what she does.
Similarly, suppose you find yourself in one of those “crazy” churches who insist on believing all those Scriptures which clearly teach that God created men and women to be different, honoring each with unique and irreversible roles? Well, the doctrine of the Trinity helps again. While Jesus walked the earth, God the Son submitted to the will of God the Father (Luke 22:42). Yet there was no distinction of value between the Father and the Son. The Father was not “more glorious” or “more important” or “more worthy” in any sense. Likewise, Jesus says that the Spirit’s job is to glorify him (John 16:14), but God the Spirit is not less valuable or glorious than God the Son.
In the Trinity there is remarkable diversity of role, but perfect equality of deity and worthiness. The Trinity proves that people can be equal without being the same. So if God has called women to some tasks and men to others, this isn’t a slight against women or men. Women aren’t “better” than men because they have been designed and called to sustain the live of God’s new image-bearers as they come into the world. Nor are men any “better” than women because they have been designed and called to lead their families with responsible humility. Only those who see value in terms of what you do argue about this. They say it’s “unfair” that woman are designed and called by God to do some things that men aren’t, and vice versa. Unlike them, the Trinity is perfectly happy to see equality in the midst of difference, and unity in the midst of diversity. Indeed, that kind of diversity-without-inequality is the very fabric of God’s Trinitarian life.
Finally, belief in the doctrine of the Trinity affects even how we see ourselves. It is tempting for us to construct an identity in terms of “I, me, and my,” but the Trinitarian God of the universe, in whose image we are made, stands over against that individualistic notion. God has eternally existed in community, and each member of the Trinity is defined in community. God the Father knows himself in relation to the Son and the Spirit, God the Son knows himself in relation to the Spirit and the Father, and God the Spirit knows himself in relation to the Father and the Son. By God’s design, we too have been created for community. This means (1) that we should avoid anyone attempt to construct an identity for ourselves apart from relating to others, including God; (2) that we should seek to live our lives in the context of close-knit fellowship with other men and women who know what it means to be made in the image of God.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.