The 360 Degree Christian Sunday School class has recently been reviewing the essential Christian doctrines, none of which has led to more vibrant discussion than the doctrine of the Trinity. There really cannot be an end to this topic since God’s full nature is a profound mystery that could never lend itself fully to human understanding.
This week we plan to take a look at the truth that God created us all as unique individuals and yet has intended for us to act as one with singleness of heart and action. My belief is that this mandate does not come simply from the mind of God, but from his very nature.
Trinity in the Old Testament
To some, the idea of the Trinity might seem to conflict with the Hebrew monotheism of the Old Testament. In response I’d like to share two important points. First, the name “Elohim,” used of God in the Old Testament, is actually a plural word, while the Hebrew view of God is singular. This seems to at least hint at the mystery that is the Trinity. The second point relates to the Shema; the Hebrew’s primary statement of monotheistic faith. “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” The word “one” is an interesting combin-ation of singleness and multiplicity. The word here is echad (אֶחָד) which alludes to a state of unity more than only-ness. It is used in the passage from Jeremiah 32 “I will give them singleness (echad) of heart and action,” indicating a group acting as one. It is also used in the phrase “and the two shall become one (echad) flesh.”
The word echad can be contrasted with the word yachid (יָחִיד) which clearly implies “one and only”. Yachid is used in verses like “… Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only (yachid) son” (Genesis 22:12). By these two points I hopefully have demonstrated that there is some support for an idea similar to the Trinity in Old Testament scripture. I bring this up because, to me, this is a remarkable concept. As I have learn more and more about the Old Testament, I am awed by God’s consistent nature and persistent plan throughout history.
Unless God exists in more than one Person, love would have not have been possible prior to the creation of the world. I will try to explain.
We know from Scripture that God is love (1 John 4:8). Notice that this statement goes beyond expressing that God if lov-ing. It tells us that He is love by His very nature. We also know that He is eternal and that His nature never changes. He is the same today as He was in eternity past and as He will be in eternity future. The problem lies in the fact that Love is something that is expressed between at least two individuals. C.S. Lewis said it well.
All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’ But they don’t seem to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person then before the world was made, He was not love. – C.S. Lewis
In one of his lectures at NBC, Dr. Umbel outlined the Trinitarian view in four sections: God is One, God is Three, God is Diversity, and God is Unity.
That God is one, the Hebrew God known as Yahweh, must be the basis since as a Christian, it must be clear that we are in no way polytheistic. Whatever else might be added to the doctrine, we must not lose sight of this point. Christians are “staunch monotheists” according to Umbel, even to the point of rejecting “any form of modalism, that God historically was manifest in the modes of Father, then Son, and, finally, the Holy Spirit” (Umbel).
The next point, God is Three, is the primary statement on the Trinity, reflecting our belief that God, while one, exists in three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. “Christianity affirms that each of the three Persons is deity, constituting and sharing in the one divine essence” (Umbel). This relates to the third point, God is a Diversity.
We grasp, in part, the difficulty in communicating the mystery in this one phrase, “God is a diversity.” This is not even grammatically correct, but divergence from the grammatical norm becomes necessary in order to apply the English language to the daunting task of describing the Trinity. On this topic, Umbel writes, “This diversity is seen in being but also in each Person’s specific role in the one divine program (Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer). The Father functions as the foundation of the world and of the divine program for creation; the Son functions as the revealer of God, the example and herald of the Father’s will for creation, and Redeemer; and the Spirit functions as the personal divine power active in the world, the completer of the divine will and program” (Umbel).
God is Unity is the final point. This idea settles well in my mind. In musical terms it seems to be a form of theological cadence that draws the doctrine to a harmonious close. Umbel tells us “Despite their different and specific roles in the one divine program, all Persons of the Trinity are involved in every area of God’s working in the world. The divine activity is characterized by cooperation among the three members of the Trinity … The unity of God is nothing less than the commitment of the Trinitarian persons to each other” (Umbel).
I agree with Dr. Umbel in the above statements but also find it worthwhile to note that while specific roles can be “assigned” to the persons of the Trinity, those roles do weave together, further emphasizing the cooperative unity of the whole. For example, while the Father may be considered “creator” John 1 informs us that Jesus was not only present at creation but that all things were made through him. In the book of Genesis we clearly see that the Spirit was also present in the creation account. The redeemer role extends to the Father and the Spirit. It was Father who sent the Son on our behalf and the Spirit that enables us to understand and believe and also and also inspired the writing of scripture through which we learn of the Gospel. Finally, the Spirit is not alone in His role of sustainer. God the Father provides our “daily bread” and “in Him we live and move and have our being.” Jesus sustains us by His word and through His intercession.
As I stated at the beginning, the triune nature of God is certainly a profound mystery. However, this does not mean we cannot know all we need to know about the nature of God. Paul tells us we can see clearly all that we need to see through Christ.
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. – Hebrews 1:3
Every example of Jesus’ life displays a shining image of unity and individuality. This not only reflects the very nature of God but also defines how His Body, the Church, is to function here on earth.
The doctrine of the Trinity is an interesting one to discuss. Yet approaching this subject academically would seem to have little real value in ministry. No definition, no statement, no argument or apology can suffice. The most constructive approach then is from the viewpoint of mystery, faith and as Wesley argued, from experience. We must recognize that having knowledge of God is not the same as loving him. In the same way, our ministry proceeds out of both the unity and diversity of the Church which reflects the nature of the God we serve.
Lewis, C.S. “Beyond Personality.” pub. Geoffrey Bles, 1944.
Umbel, W. Thomas. “Reflections on the Triune Godhead.” Systematic Theology I. Nazarene Bible College, 2008. Lecture. 3 Mar 2013.