The Deep Things Of God: Understanding the Trinity
- Monday, September 20, 2010
There is certainly a time and place for introducing the words, concepts, propositions, and truth claims of Trinitarian theology. But too often in contemporary teaching about the Trinity, those words not only come first; they come first, last, and exclusively. The Trinity seems to most evangelicals like a doctrinal formula to be received and believed by a mental act of understanding. In short, it is at best a true fact about God that we hold in our minds in the form of words. Teaching about it is then a matter of using words to lead learners to more words. "Words, words, words," was Prince Hamlet's reply when he was asked what he was reading, but that was hardly a sign of a balanced mind or a generous spirit. A Christian who is reading about the Trinity ought to be able to say he is reading more than "words, words, words." Evangelical commitment to the Trinity should not stay confined to the realm of verbal exercises; it ought to dive deeper and rise higher than the power of words. It ought to begin from the experienced reality of the Trinitarian grace of God and lead us to a deeper encounter with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
A merely verbal approach to the Trinity is doomed to be shallow, weak, and brittle, because it will be no stronger than our own ability to understand and articulate what we are thinking about. This is in fact the plight that much evangelical Trinitarianism finds itself in at the popular level. As I have taught in various churches about the doctrine of the Trinity in the past twelve years, I have tried to answer the top three questions that evangelicals bring with them: Is it biblical? Does it make sense? And does it matter? These are all good questions and deserve the most helpful answers a theologian can bring to a congregation.16 But I have learned that if the first two questions are answered only at the level of verbal maneuvers, the third question has a tendency to loom impossibly large.
The question, Is it biblical? can be answered by a congeries of Bible verses proving various elements of the doctrine. First we provide biblical proofs of the deity of the Son, then the deity of the Spirit, then the personhood of the Spirit, then the distinction between the Father and the Son, then the distinction between the Son and the Spirit, and so on, either beginning or ending with biblical proof of the unity of God. It is possible to catch a glimpse of the deeper Trinitarian logic of the Bible's total message through this approach, but when time is short, the biblical proof of the Trinity is reduced to a verse-by-verse affair.
That leads to the second question, does it make sense? There are a few satisfying, logical distinctions to make here, especially in pointing out that God is not one something and also somehow three of the same something's (which would be a strict, logical contradiction), but one being in three persons (which still requires further explanation, but is not simply a contradiction). But the apparently inevitable next step in pursuing the question, Does it makes sense? is the sub-question, What is the best analogy for the Trinity? This sub-question is usually the death-knell for Trinitarianism's relevance. Analogies can play a useful role in thinking about God, but when the hankering for an analogy arises right here, on the border between "Does it make sense" and "Does it matter," it is usually a sign that Trinitarian thinking has devolved into a verbal project for its own sake. It has become a matter of getting the right words, so they can lead us to more of the right words. Serial proof-texting gives way to broken analogies, confronting us with an unanswerable "so what" question. How do we fall so quickly from three perfectly good questions (Is it biblical? Does it make sense? And does it matter?) to a form of discourse as hollow as an echo chamber? What is the difference between a belief in the Trinity that simply doesn't matter and one that changes everything?
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