The Deep Things Of God: Understanding the Trinity
- Monday, September 20, 2010
It is worth asking why we should bother going on to clearer understanding of what is Trinitarian about the gospel. If it's possible to be subliminally Trinitarian as a Christian, what benefit is there to taking the next step of being explicit about it? The advantages are too numerous and comprehensive to list, but all of them flow directly from making that cognitive jump from unawareness to awareness. When we bring an idea this important out from the backs of our minds into the spotlight of our conscious attention, we change everything in our theological understanding. Furthermore, we move out of the preposterous situation of being Trinitarian without knowing we're Trinitarian.
Anybody who has encountered God in Christ through the Holy Spirit has come to know the Trinity. But not everybody in this position knows that they know the Trinity. When they move to that next level of knowing that they know the Trinity, a bright light shines on everything they knew before. The situation is like a vivid learning experience I had as a child. I was standing on the front lawn of my great-grandmother's farm watching clouds pass in front of the moon. It was early evening, the sun had just gone down, the moon was already very bright, and the clouds were blowing quickly across the face of the moon. It was very beautiful, and I was standing on the front lawn, just looking at it. My Uncle Dan came out and asked, "What are you looking at?"
I said, "I'm watching the clouds go by the moon."
He asked, "What does that make you think about?"
I replied, "Well, really I'm waiting to see if any of the clouds will go
behind the moon. So far they've all gone in front of it."
Uncle Dan stood there with me watching clouds, and after a while
he asked, "Where is the moon?"
"It's in outer space."
Some more time went by. "And where are clouds?"
"They're in our upper atmosphere," I said.
"Oh . . . right," it dawned on me. "I'm going to stand here a long
time before I see a cloud going behind the moon. In fact, it's not going
What I always come back to when I think about that story is the question, Did I know that clouds are closer than the moon, or did I not know that? I had in my mind all the information I needed to draw the right conclusion, but I had never put it together. It was a situation in which I knew something but didn't know that I knew it. And that put me in an awkward position, made it very likely that I would say foolish things and even waste my time waiting for something that was never going to happen. If you trust Jesus to be your salvation, you already know the Trinity. But it's a great benefit to know that you know the Trinity. It's a great benefit to know that you're a Christian because you've received a Spirit of adoption from the Father, a Spirit that lets you call God "Abba, Father." The Trinity is lurking in the gospel, just as it is lurking in the life of every believer. This Trinitarian reality is going on in our Christian lives whether we know that we know it or not.
Vital Trinitarianism, the kind that matters and changes everything, does not occur in a vacuum. The doctrine of the Trinity, although it can be stated as a series of propositions embodying truth claims about God ("God is one being in three persons"), involves much more than that. Trinitarianism is the encompassing framework within which all Christian thought takes place and within which Christian confession finds its grounding presuppositions. It is the deep grammar of all the central Christian affirmations. Therefore, when the theologians of the patristic age finally stated it explicitly as an article of faith (beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325, though with obvious precursors), they were not simply adding an item to a list of beliefs but performing an act of intellectual foregrounding, bringing a background element from the periphery to the center of Christian attention. By doing so, they were equipping later theologians to think coherently about the entire structure of our saving knowledge of God in a single act of focused inquiry. In the passage from implicit awareness of God's triunity and an inarticulate experience of salvation, to explicit confession of faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Christian theology came of age epistemologically. Having always known the Trinity, Christian thinkers now knew that they knew the Trinity.
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