The Trinity is a perplexing thing to talk about.
Early on, the church declared that the Father, Son, and Spirit are of the same substance and nature, but that they are also distinct “persons.” Despite being a fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith, it is often ignored in churches. Why? One reason is that it is a tough thing to unravel. Christian know they believe in one God, most probably affirm Jesus’s divinity, but how they make sense of the relationship of Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit is difficult to explain or make any sense of at all. This confusion often compels Christians to let the Trinity fall to the side—they ignore the doctrine and its implications. Much is lost when this is done, however. Thus, I am out to clarify a couple of things. I am going explain some of the language surrounding the Trinity, and then move onto to discuss Jesus’ relationship to the Father as the eternal, unmade (begotten) Son and how the Spirit function within that relationship.
To make sense of the Trinitarian God, I think a clarification needs to be made on the word “persons.” When theologians use the term person, they do not mean an autonomous, totally separate self and ego. The Son and Father are not distinct persons or minds in the same way you and I are. We shouldn’t think of the Father, Son, and Spirit as three different divine people hanging out in heaven. They are eternally distinct, but eternally united, all at once “conversing” with one another, and yet of one mind and nature.
The unity and separation of the persons of the Trinity is important not just for the distinct ways God interacts in the world, but it also provides a logical grounding for those distinct outworkings. Theology often makes the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity.
- The Economic Trinity is how God engages with creation. One of the common explanations is that God as Father is creator, God as Son is redeemer, and God as Spirit is sustainer. These are three distinct ways creation encounters the One, united God in its separate persons.
- The Immanent Trinity is the eternal relationship between the three persons, without reference to finitude (anything bound by time, the material, ect.).
Confusing, I know.
Folks talking about the trinity often walk the fine line between tritheism (three distinct Gods) and modalism (that there is one God that comes to us in different modes). Both of these, however, are not what Christianity is after. None of this is particularly easy to wrestle with, but a helpful entrance into the Trinity is the necessity of Jesus’ divinity. The church decided early on that Christ was not God in a fleshy man-suit, who resurrected as a purely spiritual, non-material body. No, the early church came to the conclusion that Christ was fully God and fully human, his death was a real death, and his life a real life.
But why is this important?
First, and perhaps most obvious, scripture affirms Christ’s divinity. John 20:28, John 8:58, Philippians 2:6, and Romans 8 are just a few text that either clearly assert the divinity of Christ, or operate under the assumption that he is God. But as mentioned above, there is an important logic here as well. The divinity of Christ shows that God is out to redeem the world; rather than doing this through fiat, a simple decree, God does this through intermingling the divinity and creation. God makes us part of the redemptive act. Christ assumes human nature to redeem human nature, takes upon himself death defeat death, and in the middle of it, teaches us what the Christian life ought to be like. The Trinity makes sense of this activity. God is always for the “other.” That is, God is always selfless and loving toward something. The separation of the persons of the Trinity grounds the character of God to be “for others.” In other words, God’s constant care for creation is grounded in the eternal relationship between the persons. “God is love” is not love for the self, but love for multitude. God, by nature, had to enact our redemption. Yes, God is free in himself, but his character drives that freedom in love. It is essential to God’s nature.
But how are we to encounter this love? Well, in thinking of the economic Trinity, the Spirit is fundamental. Because the cross is central to Christianity, the Spirit is often forgotten about, or tacked onto the end of our theology. But all that Christ does is through the power of the Spirit (Hebrews 9:14, Acts 10:38, Luke 1:14, etc.), and it strikes me that all that God does through us is in the Spirit.
Taking a look at Romans 8, we find that the Spirit brings us to an encounter with the whole Trinity. It is through the Spirit that we become children of God, entering into the Christian life as redeemed people. Our innermost self, along with all of creation, groan for this adoption into the life of God, and though we do not know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes and prays for us because the yearn is simply too deep for words. The experience of the Spirit is inherently Trinitarian. We encounter the entirety of God through the Spirit’s leading.
What conclusion does this bring us to?
My intent here is not to provide a full apologetic of the Trinity. Rather, I simply want to shed a bit of light as to why the Trinity is so important. Many Christians know the basics of Christian doctrine, but often times are wary of venturing into any ideas on the Trinity because it’s so big and complex. But don’t be afraid! Even a very basic understanding of the Trinity will enrich your understanding of the work of Christ, and may well beckon a different kind of encounter with God. It’s not about an intellectual or academic understanding of the Trinity: it’s that it nourishes the soul and can help you interpret your experience of God more fully.