Why the Trinity Matters
When I was a rookie pastor, the Revelation Seminar was the latest trend in Adventist public evangelism. One of the presentation topics set forth the basic doctrine of the Trinity. I wondered why we included this study in the seminar. Was I being asked to theorize about a topic of little practical use? Was this merely an exercise akin to arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
Perhaps the presentation was for the purpose of public relations, designed to demonstrate that Seventh-day Adventists are not a cult. It would thus be a basis of establishing common ground with mainline Christian guests attending the seminar. Though promoting and maintaining a good public image may be desirable, such an approach may still leave the practical question unanswered: What difference does this doctrine make?
Our view of God impacts how we experience Him. Incorrect views foster an improper attitude toward God and thus can significantly affect our relationship with Him. The Trinity doctrine plays a crucial role in shaping a proper relationship with God. And the doctrine of the Trinity should impact our experience in a manner similar to the experiential purpose of the second commandment of the Decalogue. This command enjoins us not to make images of God and worship them. How does that commandment affect our experience?
In a basic rule-compliance understanding of the second commandment, one might think of Paul’s anti-idol discourse in Romans 1:19-25. Paul condemns the Gentiles for elevating the creature above the Creator by making idols (vss. 23, 25). Thus something seems fundamental about making a visual representation of God that diminishes our understanding of who He is. Our concept of Him thus tends to narrow to fit a finite representation of Him, and we begin to create our own god, carving it from ideas instead of wood or stone, then bowing and worshiping. Once God is boxed into our finite minds, He becomes manageable and malleable. We lose a practical sense of His infinite superiority, enabling us to gravitate toward a negotiable relationship and freeing us to do as we please as demonstrated by the Gentiles in Romans 1. This is certainly significant, but there is more.
Moving beyond rule compliance to the personal-power approach to the Ten Commandments, boxing God into our finite minds is an attempt to use our power of reason to demystify God. John Oswalt observes that “like their pagan neighbors, the Israelites were constantly trying to fit the divine into a box of their own making so that the divine could be understood and controlled.”* Romans 1 would seem to suggest that idolatry is one of the most significant ways that humankind has tried to demystify God, and Oswalt has rightly linked that quest to the human desire to harness the power of Deity to one’s dreams and desires.
Hence it seems that we can use our personal power to violate a divine right to mystery. God has a right to be mysterious—beyond our ability to comprehend and analyze. Sinful humanity, however, is frustrated by such mystery and seeks to demystify Deity and make the concept comprehensible. Once God is demystified, He becomes malleable. The second commandment thus calls us to voluntarily restrict our desire to demystify God and, instead, protect His right to mystery by respecting those mysterious boundaries our reason cannot competently cross.
In attempting to demystify God, we can use our personal power to encroach another right of God, namely the right to define Himself. By making idols—visual or intellectual—human beings impose alien concepts onto God, submitting Him to human definition and superintendence. Humans become the judge of what God should be, thus elevating themselves above their Creator.
The second commandment calls us to receive God as self-defined, in spite of the mysteries that do not make sense to our finite minds, and without imposing further definitions onto God. It reminds us that we are creatures who have no right to determine who God is or how He works. All we can do is receive His self-revelation or resist, carving our own God out of human ideas. This is where the Trinity doctrine interfaces with the second commandment.
Like the second commandment, the Trinity doctrine reveals a God who is too complex to define or understand fully. Our minds cannot grasp how we have one God, who is three persons, each fully Deity without being one-third of a God, yet They are not three Gods. If you think you can explain that satisfactorily, plainly you do not know whereof you speak. While we can be sure about those aspects of God that are revealed, we cannot claim to comprehend their meaning fully. Like the second commandment, the Trinity doctrine calls us humbly to acknowledge that God must be received as revealed even though our minds are left with baffling mysteries that cannot be explained. The Trinity doctrine reminds us of God’s right to define Himself without having to make Himself fully comprehensible. In this way, we are more likely to acknowledge His sovereignty and respect it. The incomprehensible dimension of the doctrine validates its authenticity.
We construct the doctrine of the Trinity from biblical data, much as we construct the doctrine of man, the doctrine of judgment, and a theology of good health. We also try not to go beyond Scripture into philosophical speculations about the exact nature of God as is done to some extent in the creeds. Instead, we see Jesus cast as co-eternal with God, who Himself is God (John 1:1-3). We then see the Holy Spirit described as “another Counselor” (NIV) like Christ and note that the Greek word for “another” means “another of the same kind” (John 14:16). Both Jesus and the Spirit are called paraclete (John 14:16; 1 John 2:1).
These are a few examples of a phenomenon in Scripture in which various attributes and traits are ascribed in common with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If A is like B, and B is like C, then A must be like C. God reveals Himself in Scripture as three separate divine persons sharing the same attributes and powers, yet who are not component parts of a God; nor are they three Gods, but one God. All we can do is surrender our desire to attain logical comfort and clarity, yielding our wishes to God’s right to mystery and self-definition and receiving His self-revelation in faith.
This does not mean, however, that we cannot know anything about God, nor that there is no logic at all in the Trinity doctrine. Monotheistic faiths that lack a Triune view of the Godhead are prone to lose the full and balanced view of who God is, often favoring the more high, lofty, authoritarian aspects of God over the loving and personal dimensions. By contrast, the Trinity doctrine shows each member specializing in revealing specific aspects of who God is, promoting a balanced view of God. Taking this equality seriously, we are forced to encounter all the attributes on an equal footing without diminishing some to favor others.
All members of the Godhead possess and exercise the full complement of divine attributes, but in relating to us, each specializes in revealing particular dimensions. The Father reveals the high, mighty, awe-inspiring, sovereign characteristics of the Godhead, exemplified by Isaiah’s reaction in chapter 6, “woe is me” (NKJV). Jesus is the “Word” (John 1:1-3) and as such, specializes in communicating with His creatures in relational and intimate ways. Christ reveals the relational, gracious, loving dimensions that characterize all three members of the Godhead. The Holy Spirit encapsulates the mysteriousness of God, working invisibly undercover, not speaking for Himself but revealing the others (John 16:13, 14). Since all are fully Deity, we must treat justice, mercy, grace, judgment, and all the other attributes as equally significant and important. This equal reckoning helps us to develop a properly balanced understanding of God’s character. Without the complexity resulting from three Persons, it becomes much easier to fall for the trap of desiring to demystify God.
The Trinity doctrine is a challenge to let God define Himself. It is a call to surrender to the mysteries remaining beyond comprehension. This act of submission by accepting the mystery and letting it remain as such, is the most foundational element in forging a proper relationship with God. Not everything God reveals will make sense to us, whether it be revelations about Himself or other things.
Just as revelations and admonitions from parents do not always make sense to teens and children, so some of God’s revelations will be beyond our understanding. As good children, however, we must accept the authority of those revelations and acknowledge our limits along with God’s rights. Otherwise, we risk elevating the creature over the Creator, subjecting God to our standards of who we think He ought to be, and creating an idol out of ideas instead of wood or stone. Let us surrender to the mystery and receive God as self-revealed instead boxing Him into the confines of our finite minds.
*John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009), p. 135.