The Deep Things Of God: Understanding the Trinity
- Monday, September 20, 2010
John Bunyan (1628-1688) devoted only one extended meditation to this doctrine, a piece entitled "Of the Trinity and a Christian," whose title suggests an interest in something practical and perhaps edifying. The descriptive subtitle specifies that it is about "How a young or shaken Christian should demean himself under the weighty thoughts of the Doctrin of the Trinity." The problem Bunyan wants to solve for the "young or shaken Christian" is that the Trinity is a difficult doctrine, seeming to contradict reason by proposing that one is three or vice versa. This intellectual conflict could lead the believer to question what is clearly revealed in Scripture, which is tantamount to questioning God himself. But Bunyan warns: "It is great lewdness, and also insufferable arrogancy to come to the Word of God, as conceiting already that whatever thou readest must either by thee be understood, or of it self fall to the ground as a senseless error." The proper response to this hard doctrine is to submit one's human judgment to God's greater wisdom: "But God is wiser than Man, wherefore fear thou him and tremble at his Word, saying still, with godly suspicion of thine own infirmity, what I see not teach thou me, and thou art God only wise; but as for me, I was as a beast before thee."26
Surely Bunyan strikes the appropriate human posture in the face of God's wisdom, but we might ask why it is the doctrine of the Trinity in particular that spurs his reflection on humility of mind. Why is it precisely here that we are invited to yield our understanding before the incomprehensibility of God and his secret counsels? The answer, sadly, seems to be that when Bunyan thought about the doctrine of the Trinity, he thought of something remote from the business of salvation, but authoritatively revealed and necessary to be believed. The doctrine seems to have turned from a mystery of salvation to a problem of intellectual coherence.27
Isaac Watts (1674-1748) felt the same tension, but by his era there had been considerable debate about whether this hard doctrine was in fact scriptural.28 The debates took their toll on Watts, and although most of his hymns and sermons are a glorious legacy of Trinitarian worship, he became much less confident about the traditional form of the doctrine later in his life. Watts was as submissive to scriptural revelation as Bunyan but was deeply troubled about what doctrine he was being asked to submit his understanding to: "Dear and blessed God, hadst thou been pleased, in any one plain scripture, to have informed me which of the different opinions about holy Trinity, among the contending parties of christians, had been true, thou knowest with how much real satisfaction and joy, my unbiased heart would have opened itself to receive and embrace the divine discovery."
If only God had shown "plainly, in any single text, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are three real distinct Persons" in one divine nature, Watts says, "I had never suffered myself to be bewildered in so many doubts, nor embarrassed with so many strong fears of assenting to the mere inventions of men, instead of divine doctrine; but I should have humbly and immediately accepted thy words, so far as it was possible for me to understand them, as the only rule of my faith." Nowhere in his impassioned prayer does Watts give the impression that he is grappling with a mystery of salvation; his angst all stems from the situation of being faced with a doctrine lacking the kind of direct biblical support that would bind it on his conscience as an article of faith, and its sheer intellectual difficulty. "How can such weak creatures ever take in so strange, so difficult, and so abstruse a doctrine as this?"29
The way this tension has come to expression in the devotional life of evangelicals is startlingly expressed by the Holiness evangelist Amanda Smith (1837-1915) in her autobiography The Story of the Lord's Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith, the Colored Evangelist.30 Without explaining what provoked her, Smith records that she "became greatly exercised about the Trinity. . . . I could not seem to understand just how there could exist three distinct persons, and yet one. I thought every day and prayed for light, but didn't seem to get help. I read the Bible, but no help came." Smith records the two weeks during which her anxiety mounted and she felt guided toward a definite experience of personal revelation, a kind of intellectual counterpart to the experience of entire sanctification expected by Holiness people in
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