An Old Man, a Son and a Bird?
Believe it or not, the above title was a description given some years ago in a survey on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It may provoke a smile, but we have got to admit that the doctrine is a difficult one.
Andrei Rublev’s “The Holy Trinity”, Source: Wikimedia Commons
Its complexity has led some to abandon it altogether and others to push it to the margins of their thinking. The latter is the sad situation in many of churches. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself: when was the last time you heard a message or study on the Holy Trinity? But there are several important reasons why it should be taught.
The Trinity: Biblically BasedL~
Jehovah’s Witnesses and others have pointed out that the word trinity doesn’t appear in the Bible. That’s true, but the Bible, including the Old Testament, portrays God and displays God as acting in a trinitarian or threefold manner. As early as Genesis 1 we see God, in the creative process, as God, as the Spirit of God hovering over the dark waters, and via the Word – the divine fiats (“Let there be…”). Note that when God speaks in those early chapters of Genesis the plural personal pronoun is used e.g. ““Let us make human beings in our image…” (Genesis 1:26 TNIV). In Isaiah 6:8 we read, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Elohim, the Hebrew word frequently used for God, is plural.
The late book of Zechariah is regarded by many scholars as the book which completes and sums up the whole of the Old Testament. And in Zechariah chapters 3 and 4 (these two chapters should be read as a unit) we see the LORD, the Angel of the Lord and, in the best known verse of chapter 4, the Spirit of the Lord (Zechariah 3:1, 2; 4:6). Thus, in the first and also, effectively, the final book of the Old Testament, you have what might be described as hints of the Trinity. There are dozens of others. Jewish scholar and exegete Philo of Alexandria (he was a contemporary of Paul) expounded the story of the three visitors to Abraham (Genesis 18) as illustrative of certain “powers” by which God operates. David Runia suggests this might have influenced early Christian theology.
In the New Testament hints become facts. The first Christians, all of Jewish monotheist background, whether Jews or proselytes, had no difficulty seeing God as Father (Jesus reinforced this by instructing them to pray “Our Father”) and yet they perceived that in some mysterious and indefinable way, Jesus was also more than a mere man. Thomas hailed the Risen Lord as “My Lord and My God.” Anglican theologian Gerald Bray, commenting on the encounter those first believers had on the Day of Pentecost, writes: “Pentecost completed their threefold experience of God.” It’s interesting to note that Father, Son and Spirit feature not only in the Gospel of John, written about 90 AD, but also in Galatians 4:6 and also very strongly in the first chapter of I Thessalonians. Galatians and I Thessalonians were written around 50 AD - the earliest books of the New Testament to be written.
In the succeeding centuries, guided by the Holy Spirit as Jesus had promised, the Church developed the doctrine of the Holy Trinity based on the experience of the early believers and, of course, on the Scriptures. Experience generated doctrine and doctrine in turn guaranteed authentic experience and was a fence against heresy. The early Fathers believed that defective views on the Person of Christ and the Holy Trinity impoverished one’s experience of God and, in time, might lead to conduct unworthy of Christians.
The Trinity: Experience EnrichedL~
It’s a sad reflection on our society that the pious British Muslim has more respect for God than the average British “Christian”. The words “Jesus” and “God” are more frequently spoken in blasphemy than in worship. Now, speaking of our Muslim neighbours, I believe it would be arrogant to suppose that they have absolutely no relationship with God. But their relationship is arguably a distant one, largely conducted through moral precepts and religious rites. But, by the grace of God, the Christian enjoys a warm and intimate relationship with the Almighty and is blessed with the privilege of being a child of God, as Paul says in the verse from Galatians already mentioned: Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” (Galatians 4: TNIV).
Allah, the word for God used by Arab Christians long before Muhammad arrived on the scene, in Islamic theology’s strict and absolute monotheism, cannot save. He has no Son. But the New Testament tells us that, in the counsels of eternity – and drawing a parallel with the words of the Lord to Isaiah – when God asked “Who will go for us?” the Son’s reply was:
~q‘A body you have prepared for Me… Then I said, “Here I am, I have come— it is written about me in the scroll.’ (Hebrews 10:5-7; Psalm 40:7)q~
And so, “in the fullness of time”, conceived by the Holy Spirit, the eternal Son entered our human nature and condition to offer himself as “a ransom for many”. In short, salvation is a work of the Trinity: the Father initiates the plan, the Son carries it out - the Spirit both enabling him to do so and also applying its benefits to believing hearts.
Prayer is another vital area where a study of the Trinity will pay off. Far too often there is confusion. Some pray, “Thank you, Father, for dying on the Cross for me”! Even leaders mix up the Persons and forget that Jesus urged prayer to the Father. Always in recollected prayer (I am not talking here of emergency “arrows of prayer”) the Father should be invoked in the name of the Son and in the recognition that the Third Person, sometimes spoken of as “the go-between God”, is the essential link and conveyor of grace.
Nowadays the theme of leadership is constantly spoken of and is the subject of a plethora of books and seminars. But it is often overlooked that the model of leadership is the Trinity. There is no place for the monarchical episcopate or the one-man-band pastor: when Paul summoned the leadership of the Ephesian assembly he “called the elders of the church” (Acts 20:17). Church leadership should reflect the plurality, harmony and complementarity of the Holy Trinity. And the character of under-shepherds, whatever their varied ministries, should reflect that of the Chief Shepherd – Jesus, the supreme example of humility (Philippians 2:5-7).
These are just a few of the areas where a clear doctrine of the Trinity will pay dividends. But, to draw to a close, we return to what we said earlier about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and, more importantly, the Muslims in our midst.
The Trinity: One God, Three Gods ( or Four?)L~
A recent “Songs of Praise” programme on BBC television did nothing for Muslim-Christian relations. In it Mary was presented as the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven and a more sympathetic intercessor with her Son than all the other “saints”. For me that programme brought into sharp relief the big issue: Muslims regard Christians as idolaters and polytheists. “You Christians worship Three Gods and a Goddess!” is the complaint. And it goes back many centuries. When Muhammad met with Christians on his travels as leader of a camel-train, he met with people who prayed to the saints, lit candles before images and so did not represent New Testament Christian faith and practice. Consequently, and not surprisingly, Muhammad became a fierce and intractable monotheist. Had he encountered authentic Christians who could have provided a clear account and defence of the doctrine of the Trinity he would not have dismissed it as the worship of Three Gods. How different the subsequent history of the world might have been! Muhammad as the Apostle to the Arabs!
The Trinity: A Question of BalanceL~
If we were to regard the Persons of the Trinity as three absolutely separate individuals, we would justly be accused of tritheism; but if we reduce the Divine Persons to mere manifestations of God we would fall into the opposite error that the early Church called Modalism. The doctrine of the Divine Trinity avoids both and presents us with a biblical concept of God which, if neglected, leads both to confusion and spiritual impoverishment and malnutrition. The question of how one can be three and three can be one is beyond the scope of this short article but certainly does merit a further one at the very least. This and related questions must be squarely faced if we are to make any impact on the Muslim folk God has brought among us and Christian folk who are “missing out” on doctrine and experience.
Suggested reading: Timothy George (editor) God the Holy Trinity – Reflections on Christian Faith & Practice, Baker Academic Books, 2006.