Augustine Tries to Understand the Trinity
One day when St. Augustine was at his wits’ end to understand and explain the Trinity, he went out for a walk. He kept turning over in his mind, “One God, but three Persons. Three Persons–not three Gods but one God. What does it mean? How can it be explained? How can my mind take it in?”
And so he was torturing his mind and beating his brains out, when he saw a little boy on the beach. He approached him to see what he was doing. The child had dug a small hole in the sand. With his hands he was carrying water from the ocean and was dumping it in the little hole. St. Augustine asked, “What are you doing, my child?”
The child replied, “I want to put all of the water of the ocean into this hole.”
St. Augustine asked, “But is it possible for all of the water of this great ocean to be contained in this little hole?”
And then it dawned on Augustine, “If the water of the ocean cannot be contained in this little hole, then how can the Infinite Trinitarian God be contained in your mind?”
Bored Monks on Rainy Afternoons
There is one other problem people can have with the Trinity: that the word never appears in the Bible. Now that doesn’t sound good, and it’s given rise to the legend of the Trinity as the invention of some cloister-bound theologians with too much time on their hands. The story goes that the Bible knows only a simple, boiled-down monotheism, but that with some ingenuity, wild speculation and a whole lot of philosophical rigamarole, the church managed to cook up this knotty and perplexing dish, the Trinity. That just isn’t how the history goes, though.
The apostle Paul, for example, didn’t show any sign of struggle to confess “that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:11). You don’t see a cloudy ignorance of the Father, Son and Spirit in A.D. 50 which is all cleared up by A.D. 500. And while later church theologians would use philosophical terms and words not seen in the Bible (like Trinity), they were not trying to add to God’s revelation of himself, as if Scripture were insufficient; they were trying to express the truth of who God is as revealed in Scripture. Particularly, they were trying to articulate Scripture’s message in the face of those who were distorting it in one way or another—and for each new distortion a new language of response was needed.
Confession to A Person?
Some years ago the Court of Appeal of British Columbia, Canada, was hearing a case about a man accused of arson. During his trial in a lower court a microphone had picked up something he had murmured under his breath – ‘O God, let me get away with it just this once.’ The judge of that court had ruled that this incriminating remark was not admissible as evidence, since it was not (in his view) a public utterance, but a private conversation between two persons – the accused and God.
The Appeal Court, however, now ruled against this judgement, on the grounds that ‘God is not a person’. When this story was reported in the Guardian newspaper, the reporter added his own twist to the verdict: he suggested that Christians should agree with the judgement of the Appeal Judges since they believe that ‘God is not one person but three’.
The Earliest Known Uses of the Trinity
Many of us are aware that the Trinity is not specifically referred to in scripture, though it would eventually become accepted among all major branches of the Christian faith as an authentic interpretation of the role of the Threefold nature of God spoken of in scripture.
But when did the church begin to speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? It turns out it was led by a few Church Fathers (Patristics) who were trying to articulate the Threefold nature of God as they experienced in both the Old and New Testaments.
The first known use of the term was by Bishop Clement of Rome in 96 AD, in an oath he gave: “as God lives, and as the Lord Jesus lives, and as the Holy Spirit lives.” Later in the middle of the Third Century, Ignatius and Justin Martyr used the threefold term in the same way. Just a bit under 100 years later, the church father Tertullian coined the term “Trinity” or “Trinitatis” in Latin, meaning the three in one.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
“He Stood For The Trinitarian Doctrine”
At the beginning of the fourth century, in Alexandria in the north of Egypt, a theologian named Arius began teaching that the Son was a created being, and not truly God. He did so because he believed that God is the origin and cause of everything, but is not caused to exist by anything else. “Uncaused” or “Unoriginate,” he therefore held, was the best basic definition of what God is like. But since the Son, being a son, must have received his being from the Father, he could not, by Arius’s definition, be God.
The argument persuaded many; it did not persuade Arius’s brilliant young contemporary, Athanasius. Believing that Arius had started in the wrong place with his basic definition of God, Athanasius dedicated the rest of his life to proving how catastrophic Arius’s thinking was for healthy Christian living.
Actually, I’ve put it much too mildly: Athanasius simply boggled at Arius’s presumption. How could he possibly know what God is like other than as he has revealed himself? “It is,” he said, “more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.” That is to say, the right way to think about God is to start with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, not some abstract definition we have made up like “Uncaused” or “Unoriginate.”
In fact, we should not even set out in our understanding of God by thinking of God primarily as Creator (naming him “from His works only”)—that, as we have seen, would make him dependent on his creation. Our definition of God must be built on the Son who reveals him. And when we do that, starting with the Son, we find that the first thing to say about God is, as it says in the creed, “We believe in one God, the Father.”
Home is Three Persons
In her book Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home, Jen Pollock Michel reflects on the nature of home in a transient age. In this short excerpt, Michel relates home to the Trinity, the source of all life:
…Home is three Persons versus a single place. The God of nomadic travelers is our home. He is the God of Abraham, who left country and kindred and his father’s house to the land that God would show him. He is the God of Israel, who wandered in the wilderness for forty years. He is the God of the Jews, who were taken captive to Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon after their homes were taken from them by conquest.
And he is the God of Jesus Christ, who, in his most “displaced” moments, cried out to his Father for wisdom, comfort, and presence. This Father—this traveling God who also never leaves, and whose dominion and presence covers every single person, place, and thing—is also our Father. He is never away from us, and we are never away from him.
Wherever we go, his goodness and mercy follow us for all of our days. If we ascend to heaven, he is there. If we make our beds in Sheol, he is there also. And? He is not merely with us; he is within us. He will never leave us or forsake us. In that sense, we are never not at home.
“If God Makes One More, It’s All Right With Me”
There is no question then of the doctrine of the Trinity being a kind of numerical puzzle designed to test faith or to baffle the human mind. The doctrine is not stating the paradox that God is one being and three beings at the same time, or even that God is both ‘one person’ and ‘three persons’, as something impossible to believe but required as a proof of devotion.
Unfortunately, Christian people do not think like this, as was shown by a survey conducted in 1984 by a professional sociologist and entitled ‘The Triune God in Hackney and Enfield’. When church members in this area of London were asked, ‘How is it that God is three persons in one?’, the answers of about a third of the sample group showed that they understood the last word in the sense of ‘one person’, one respondent affirming typically that ‘The three are one person: they’re all one person’, The willingness to accept a pious puzzle was well illustrated by the church member who remarked that ‘two are hardly enough and four are too many. But if God decides to make one more it’s all right with me.’
Kenōsis and Perichōrēsis
There are two wonderful Greek words that the early church theologians used to describe the Trinity: kenōsis and perichōrēsis. Kenosis is the act of self-giving for the good of another. It is found in the early Christian hymn in Philippians 2: [Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. (vv. 6-7)
The word emptied translates the verb form of kenōsis. Jesus gave of himself for the good of another. The theologians reasoned that if Jesus was kenotic, the Father and the Spirit must be also. They used the word perichōrēsis, meaning “mutual submission,” to explain it. So the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are living in mutual submission to one another. This is the heart of the Trinity: giving oneself for the good of the other.
Metaphors Lacking with the Trinity
There is, of course, that major obstacle in our way: that the Trinity is seen not as a solution and a delight, but as an oddity and a problem. In fact, some of the ways people talk about the Trinity only seem to reinforce the idea. Think, for example, of all those desperate-sounding illustrations.
“The Trinity,” some helpful soul explains, “is a bit like an egg, where there is the shell, the yolk and the white, and yet it is all one egg!” “No,” says another, “the Trinity is more like a shamrock leaf: that’s one leaf, but it’s got three bits sticking out. Just like the Father, Son and Spirit.” And one wonders why the world laughs. For whether the Trinity is compared to shrubbery, streaky bacon, the three states of H2O or a three-headed giant, it begins to sound, well, bizarre, like some pointless and unsightly growth on our understanding of God, one that could surely be lopped off with no consequence other than a universal sigh of relief.
“An Old Man with a White Beard”
My friend and colleague Keas Keasler, who teaches a class on spiritual formation, recently asked the class to close their eyes and picture God. After a few moments he had them open their eyes and, if comfortable, share what they saw. Most of them said the same thing: “An old man with a white beard floating in the clouds, looking down at us.” Keas then said, “If what you imagine God to be like is anything other than Jesus, then you have the wrong image of God.” Jesus is beautiful, and so are the Father and the Spirit: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 KJV).
The Problem of Communicating the Trinity to Children
The festival celebrated in the church calendar as Trinity Sunday always poses some problems when there is ‘Family Church’, and the preacher wants to give a talk to the children on the theme of the day. How is one to communicate simply the ancient formula that God is ‘three persons and one essence? Roman Catholic preachers in Ireland have, from time immemorial, reached for the national emblem and sermonised on the three-in-one of the shamrock, much as early Christian preachers drew attention to the ‘root, the shoot and the fruit’ of a growing plant, or to the sun, its ray light, and the point of the ray where it touches the earth.
These illustrations, however, though expressing multiplicity-in-unity, fail to catch the personal and relational nature of trinitarian language…Two attempts to communicate these aspects in talks to children which I have heard in recent years went as follows.
In the first the preacher invited the children to raise their hands if they had three names, and asked them to tell him what they were – Fiona Susan Smith’, for instance. God, he then informed them, also has three names – Father Son Spirit’, the second talk invited the children to think of the persons of the Trinity as different members of the same football team – the manager (the Father), a player (the Son) and the coach (the Spirit). All too unaware, our preachers had aligned themselves respectively with two historic errors in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, modalism in the first case and Pluralism in the second. The first stresses the one nature or essence of God at the expense of the reality of the persons, and the second emphasises the distinct identity of the persons but fails to articulate the oneness of God. As we shall see, there has been a tendency towards the first in the Western Church, and towards the second in the Eastern.
Signatures of the Trinity
Everything that is exists by and through and unto the relationship between God the Father and Jesus, his Son. One of the great teachers of the ancient church, St. Augustine, had a very helpful way of talking about this. In a massive treatise on the Trinity, he introduced the term vestigium trinitatis—“vestiges of the Trinity.” Augustine thought that God—being the God he is—left traces, “vestiges” of his nature in the created order.
We might think of them as “signatures” of his character and being. Since the nature of God is Father and Son (in the Holy Spirit), one of the central vestiges discernible in creation is the dynamic between the Father and the Son that I just described.
The created order taken as a whole is perhaps the most obvious example of this. The Father begets the Son from all eternity, and the Son yields his life obediently to the Father from all eternity. The life of the Trinity consists of that movement and flow. In an analogous way, creation comes into being by an act of the Father’s will and is sustained as long as he wills it and as long as it remains in proper relationship to him. If the relationship is severed, the creation spins, withers, and dies.
On the human level, the stakes are much higher. We also bear the “trace” of the relationship between the Father and the Son, but so much more than the creation does—for we have a choice. Will we yield our lives to the Father as the Son does?
A Trinitarian Deficit Disorder
A student of mine, Josiah Brown, oversees the student outreach team. He and some of our students go to youth groups to teach the youth about Christian spiritual formation. They talk about what formation is, about living as an apprentice of Jesus, and about the role of narratives in formation. Knowing many people have toxic God narratives, Josiah has come up with an interesting exercise. He writes “God” on the left side of a whiteboard and asks, “What words would you use to describe God?” They all assume Josiah is asking about God the Father, and he is.
What is your reaction to Josiah’s illustration and point? The youth say things such as “mean,” “angry,” “all-powerful,” and “distant.” Josiah writes them beneath the word God. He then writes “Jesus” on the right side of the board and asks, “What words would you use to describe Jesus?” The youth say things such as “compassionate,” “loving,” “forgiving,” “wise,” and “powerful.” Josiah then pauses, and quotes John 14:9: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Josiah lets that linger in the air for a moment. Then he asks, “Isn’t Jesus telling us that he and God the Father are like a mirror? If that is true, then why do we think of God the Father as angry and mean, and Jesus as compassionate and forgiving?”
The Trinitarian View of Worship
The [Trinitarian] view of worship is that it is the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father. That means participating in union with Christ, in what he has done for us once and for all, in his self-offering to the Father, in his life and death on the cross. It also means participating in what he is continuing to do for us in the presence of the Father and in his mission from the Father to the world.
There is only one true Priest through whom and with whom we draw near to God our Father. There is only one Mediator between God and humanity. There is only one offering which is truly acceptable to God, and it is not ours. It is the offering by which he has sanctified for all time those who come to God by him (Heb. 2:11; 10:10, 14)…It takes seriously the New Testament teaching about the sole priesthood and headship of Christ, his self-offering for us to the Father and our life in union with Christ through the Spirit, with a vision of the Church which is his body…
So we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit into the community, the one body of Christ, which confesses faith in the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and which worships the Father through the Son in the Spirit.
Triune Selfless, Self-Giving Love
In her excellent little book (Mythical Me), Richella Parham describes how her meditation on the Trinity helped her escape the comparison and competition trap:
The relationship among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a beautiful circle of selfless, giving love—has existed forever. By adopting us as children, God gives us all the privileges of being his children and the circle of fellowship extends to include us. “The only human sufficiency,” writes Dallas Willard, “comes from joining the Trinitarian community of sufficiency through faith in Jesus Christ.”
And as members of God’s family, we are all members of one another’s family. If Jesus is the brother of each of us, then we are sisters and brothers to one another…
When I remember that my life is part of the circle of trinitarian fellowship, I can stop using other people as yardsticks for judging myself. After all, their success doesn’t steal any success from me. Their happiness doesn’t diminish mine.
The fact that they’re highly gifted doesn’t mean that I’m not gifted. In fact, we’re all gifted. We were made to work together, each of us secure in Gods boundless love and equipped to share his limitless blessings. When I keep that in mind, I can delight in other people and in my need for them. I can rejoice in complementing them rather than competing with them.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on the Trinity. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!