Trinity Applied

We’ve already seen something of how important the Doctrine of the Trinity is. It points us clearly to God’s character as the God who is love and it is essential to our understanding of salvation. We now want to pick up on one or two other practical applications.

Unity and Diversity

What type of Universe would a God who is both one and three create? The answer is this: one that displays both unity and diversity.  We would expect to see order, structure and unity. This order would enable us to analyse and understand the world around us.  The unity of a creation made by one God (a Universe) will enable us to see connections between things and facts. We may even be able to develop a “theory of everything.” Scientists and Engineers will find themselves at home in this world made by the Triune God.

However, a Universe that is made by the Triune God will also be characterised diversity as it reflects something of his character.  So, it is no surprise to see variety and diversity within creation.  As well as order, we expect to see creativity including the flourishing of languages, poetry, music, dance, sculpture and painting.  Artists, poets and musicians will also find themselves at home in this world made by the Triune God.

By contrast, if we have many gods, rivalling each other, plotting, conniving and fighting, then what would we expect to see? Well, as a starting point, look at some of the ancient creation myths and you get some clues.  In those myths, there isn’t a purpose to creation.  Creation and humanity are almost incidental and really accidental.  They are just the by-products of the battles between divine factions.  A world without one true and sovereign God is a world without unity, order, structure and purpose.  It is an unintelligible and frightening place.

But what about a world created by a monist god, a God who is not one God in three persons? Well, such a world has no place for diversity.  Think of a world without variety where everything has to conform exactly to the one pattern. What place would such a Universe have for creativity? What would its art and music look like?

So the Creation we have is one that you would expect if made by a Triune God. It reflects even if “faintly” the Unity and Diversity that we see “absolutely” in the Godhead.[1]  Letham puts it this way:

“In short, this God who made the universe – establishing an order with a vast range of variety, with human beings as the crown of his creation, representing him as his image bearers – is relational.  Communion and communication are inherent in his very being.”[2]

In fact, Letham notes signs of Trinitarianism in the content of Creation, but also in the manner by which God creates:

God “forms the earth in a threefold manner.  First he issues direct fiats.  He says ‘Let there be light’… Second he works.  He separates light from darkness….However, there is also a third way of formation, in which God uses the activity of the creatures themselves.  God commands the earth to produce vegetation…He commands the earth to bring forth land animals.”[3]

So he comments:

“Thus God who created the universe does not work in a monolithic way.  His order is varied –it is threefold but one.”[4]

There are probably some implications for politics and leadership structures as well aren’t there? How can churches have genuinely plural and genuinely equal leadership teams?  Perhaps it’s because they’re – even if so imperfectly – modelling something of this unity and diversity.  By contrast, without the Trinity, we must either choose between totalitarianism (from religious and political leaders) and factionalism, leading to anarchy.[5]

Relationships Masterclass

How do we relate to other people in church, the home and the workplace? Both Peter and Paul in their letters talk about submitting.  Paul tells us that we are all to submit to one another, including wives to husbands, children to parents and slaves to masters.  Peter also instructs his readers to submit. This includes submission to the civil authorities.

Such instructions don’t tend to go down well with modern audiences, proving unpopular and sounding outdated to our egalitarian ears.  If we are all equal, then why should anyone submit to anyone?

Without getting into a detailed investigation of what Paul means in Ephesians 5,[6] we may still note that what we’ve learnt about the Trinity can help us understand how relationships are meant to work.

Paul puts it so succinctly in Philippians 2:8

“Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. 7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form,8 he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”[7]

In Jesus, we see the one who is fully God, equal with the Father in nature but who willingly submits to the Father.  Even this point has proven controversial as people have tried to work out exactly in what sense we can talk about the Son submitting. Some people have talked about the Son as “equal in nature but subordinate in role”.[8] Others balk at this, seeing even that type of phraseology as suggesting the subordinationism that proved so poisonous in Arius’ and Athanasius’ day.  However, we cannot ignore the point that the Son willingly submits to and obeys His Father.  He does so without in any way denying the unity and equality of the Godhead.[9]

So, however you work things out in practice at home, in the Church and in the workplace (and the detail may well look different in each individual context), what you can and should say is that if Jesus could submit, then it is not too big a thing for me to submit.  Submission is not degrading: it is something done voluntarily.  In fact, submission in Biblical terms is the willing act of one equal to another for the purpose of a shared goal.

Trinitarian Apologetics

All these wonderful things we’ve seen about the Trinity, how it is vital to our understanding of God as our sovereign, loving creator, how it provides the basis for our ability to live in his creation, a creation that is ordered and beautiful and how it provides the foundation for our understanding of relationships and how to live together, should lead us to a conclusion we would not have thought possible at the start.

The Doctrine of the Trinity is not something we need to defend; rather it is one of the most vital tools in our apologetics kit, particularly as we share our faith with those of other faiths.  Imagine the scene; you are having a friendly conversation over coffee with your Muslim neighbour.  He starts to ask you about the God you believe in.  You tell him that you believe in the God who is Love and who is Sovereign.  Then he says to you, “I don’t get this Trinity business.  Don’t you believe in three gods? How terrible is that?”  Normally, you would want to duck the question, say something along the lines of “but that’s not the most important thing: the important thing is Jesus died for you because he loves you.” This time you take a nervous gulp of your drink and then you decide to go for it.

“On the contrary, without knowing that God is Trinity, it is impossible for us to truly know him at all. I’ve just said that God is love and that God is sovereign.  I’m sure that you would want to agree with me that God is sovereign, unchanging and all powerful.  But can you really say that?  Wouldn’t you also want to discover that God is love?  Can he be both of those things at the same time?  Well, I believe that He can but only because he is the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  If he wasn’t, then we have a problem.  You see, we would have to ask what happened when God created the Universe.

Without the Trinity, then when God made the Universe, He changed.  You see, before then, God existed in splendid isolation.  He had no-one and nothing to relate to.  It is impossible to describe that God as loving because he only had himself to love, and we call that narcissism.  Then one day he makes the world and begins relating to his creatures.  In effect, creation fulfils a need in God.  It gives him something to relate to.  Whether he just relates to it as an overlord demanding submission or as a Father who loves doesn’t matter.  He has now changed.  What is more, He is dependent on His creation to make up for what he lacks.  He is not unchanging.  He is not sovereign.

As Christians we believe that God is sovereign and unchanging.  We also believe that He is Love.  It’s not just that God loves; it’s not simply a case of him one day deciding to be merciful.  Rather, God is love, it is essential to His character.  He must eternally be love.  How do we know this?  We know it because the Father has eternal loved the Son, giving everything to Him.  The Son has eternally loved the Father, choosing to obey him and so on.  Therefore, in God, we see perfect love.  God lacked nothing. He did not need to create.  Creation is a outflowing of his perfection and his love.  Creation itself is an act of grace.  God did not need us but he chose to make us, to love us and to redeem us. Only with the doctrine of the Trinity can we really make sense of who God is and who we are.”

 

 

[1] CF Bavick, The Doctrine of God, 331.

[2] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 21.

[3] Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity In Scripture, History, Theology and Worship (Philipsburg, NJ.: P&R Publishing, 2004), 18. We might also note that God’s revelation is also direct speech, works/signs and through human intermediaries

[4] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 19.

[5] When thinking through this issue of Unity and Diversity with its implications for culture and politics I’m particularly grateful to Dan Strange who first drew my attention to this in a lecture on Contemporary Culture at Oak Hill Theological College.

[6] For those interested, see my MTH Dissertation, Marriage at Work (Oak Hill College, London, 2010), available on request.

[7] New Living Translation

[8] See Appendix B: “The 1999 Sydney Anglican Diocese Doctrine Commission Report: ‘The Doctrine of the Trinity and its Bearing on the Relationship of Men and Women’ ” in Kevin Giles, The Trinity and Subordinationism (Downers Grove, Illinois, Inter-varsity Press, 2002.

[9] Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, 1. For a detailed response to Giles, see the Appendix in Letham, The Holy Trinity, 486-489.

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