How do we understand the doctrine of the Trinity?
The most common attribute which the Bible ascribes to God is uncommonness. “‘To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him?’ says the Holy One.” (Isaiah 40:25) He is uncommonly passionate and righteous and humble and creative and brilliant and loving in all his ways. He is unusual. In particular, it says that his holiness is so intense that it burns like a consuming fire. Just as you could not stare at the sun without going blind, though its rays are gentle, so also you could not look upon God, the Bible says, without dying.
So instead, since we cannot see him now, he reveals himself to us through actions and words.
For example, a man named Ezekiel had visions of God in the 6th century BCE, but when he tried to write down what he saw, he was able to describe everything except the actual person of God. He said he saw a thunderstorm coming, in the midst of which was “something like glowing metal.” As it came closer he realized that four “living creatures” were carrying God’s throne. Each creature had four faces—those of an eagle, a lion, an ox, and a man—and four wings with hands under them. And below each creature were two crossed wheels that were covered with eyes. “Wherever the spirit wanted to go, [the creatures] went, and the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.” He said that the sound of their wings was “like the sound of many waters, like the sound of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army.” And above their heads there was “the likeness of an expanse, shining like awe-inspiring crystal.” That was the bottom of this flying chariot. “And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance”—God. Above what appeared to be God’s waist seemed to be gleaming metal and enclosed fire, and downward was just fire. (Ezekiel 1)
This was no tame deity. (No wonder the second of the Ten Commandments told us not to make a graven image or any kind of idol.)
But then, after impoverishing our imaginations with all this wild description, when it came to actually describing God, Ezekiel gave up. He was at a complete loss for words. All he could say was not what God was like, but only what his glory appeared to be like: “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.” (Ezekiel 1:28)
All that he could do was listen as God spoke.
In similar fashion, when this God came down from heaven and walked on the earth, when Jesus did many amazing, awe-inspiring miracles, the culmination of his revelation came through words:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5; 14)
That means we cannot “see” him unless we listen. For example, we can look at the night sky and see nothing but a bunch of pretty lights, or we can listen to what astronomers say, and look at the night sky and utterly transfixed. Similarly, we can look at Jesus Christ and just see a nice religious teacher, or we can listen to what he says, and look and be astonished. For through his words he has revealed himself to be much more awe-inspiring even than Ezekiel’s vision of the flying chariot. And he shows that he, God, is at once three distinct persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.(John 14:9-11)
Jesus then promised his disciples that after he returned to heaven he would send the Holy Spirit to dwell in them. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him for he dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16-17)
Just to be clear, the Bible says that Jesus did not just represent God, but was himself fully God:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together…For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily. (Colossians 1:15-17; 2:9)
The Bible likewise says that the Holy Spirit is fully God. (See also Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 12:4–6; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 4:4–6; and 1 Peter 1:2) It consistently presents the three working together like this:
The Father plans, directs, and sends. He created the world through the Son (John 1:3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2). He planned our redemption, and so sent the Son into the world. (John 3:16; Romans 8:29; Galatians 4:4; Ephesians 1:3–5)
The Son obeys the Father’s will and serves as the mediator between God and man. He accomplished redemption for us by dying for our sins. (John 4:34; 5:19; 6:38; Hebrews 10:5–7) (Neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit died—only the Son.)
The Spirit carries out the will of both the Father and the Son, who send him. He is also called the Comforter or Helper (John 12:26; 14:16; 15:26; 16:7). He teaches (John 14:26; 1 Corinthians 2:13), guides our prayers and prays for us, and empowers us (1 Corinthians 12:11).
Although the Bible does not use the word “trinity,” as we read it we quickly learn to see God this way. The Trinity is not three god’s working together as a team, but rather one God. So how do we understand this?
God is Love
First, let’s consider why this is good to know: It can help us to understand how God’s love for us does not reflect any kind of loneliness or neediness on his part, for his love overflows from his nature. The Father is already full of love and joy in his relationship with the Son and the Spirit, and the same is true for the Son and the Spirit. In fact, we cannot truly know Jesus Christ apart from his relationship with Father and the Spirit, any more than you could truly know a father apart from his relationship with his wife and children. A family’s love for one another reveals a fundamental aspect of who the individuals are as people, and the same is true for God. Therefore, when Jesus began his ministry, all three persons of God were present, such as at his baptism:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9–11)
Likewise, at the end of his earthly ministry Jesus told his disciples to baptize others in the name of all three persons of God:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19–20)
So we cannot see any of the three clearly unless we see all three of them together. Perhaps we could compare him to the spectrum of visible light: red, blue and yellow are each perfectly unique and distinct colors, yet a child cannot learn one without learning the other two—and the rainbow of colors they create—all of which compose white light. We cannot see the world clearly without all three. Likewise, we cannot see God unless we believe that he is love.
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:8-16)
Again we see the Father, the Son, and the Spirit working together. We see it, but can we really understand it? Some try to argue that the doctrine of the Trinity is irrational, but nothing could be further from the truth. We accept many such things—such as, for example, white light being made of a rainbow of colors—as rational, even if we can’t fully explain them. However, the bottom line is that love requires faith in another person, and God has very clearly made known to us who he is and how we can know him by such faith.
God is Knowable
The Bible gives us many images to help us understand who God is and how to relate to him. For example, at different times the writers portray him as Father, King, Consuming Fire, Judge, Husband, Shepherd, Rock, Potter, Farmer, Refiner, Landowner, Lion, Bear, Light, Water, Tower, and Lamb. These images, read in context, can help us see his personality. And if we want to understand his Trinitarian nature, then we could go much deeper, but it will still have to be very personal.
We could compare it to seeing him as Creator. The Bible narrates the simple, poetic process of him speaking the world into existence: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) Thus, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” (Hebrews 11:3) But if we go deeper and learn about subatomic physics and the Big Bang, then we see an even more robust and profound picture of God’s creative work. We still believe by faith that he created the world by speaking, and the science simply magnifies the beauty of his words. But we truly don’t need to understand how exactly he did it.
In like fashion, we don’t need to understand exactly how he can be triune, and can accept it by faith. C.S. Lewis suggested in Mere Christianity that we can compare the Trinity to the three dimensions of length, width, and height. Although each of the three is perfectly unique and coherent in and of itself, the three only exist as a single phenomenon. We can find several other such analogies; ultimately, however, we don’t need to be able to explain it. A native English speaker, for example, can be perfectly fluent in communicating powerful ideas without having a clue what nouns or verbs are, and without being able to articulate a single rule of grammar. Similarly, we can walk in the light of God’s truth without knowing everything. We cannot ever objectify God, but if we listen very carefully then we can get a glimpse, “as in a mirror dimly,” (1 Corinthians 13:12) of his majesty.
Are You Listening?
So far as we know, words still precede anything and everything. For example, long before we create a rocket ship, we write up a plan for it. That plan is edited and edited again, many times, before it is ever translated into metal parts. Similarly, before an apple grows there is a DNA code for it. The same is true for all rational, creative communication: first come the words, followed by their medium.
And according to the Bible, God’s Word existed in eternity before that Word became flesh. For as holy as God is, and though his holiness is a consuming fire, he fully revealed himself in the seemingly very common person of Jesus Christ. Many look at him and see nothing but a nice religious teacher. But if you listen—and ask and seek and knock—you can see “the bread of life”, “the light of the world”, “the door”, “the good shepherd”, “the resurrection and the life”, “the way, the truth, and the life”, “the vine”, “the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end”, the very Word of God. (John 6:35, 8:12, 10:9, 10:11, 11:25, 14:6, 15:5, Revelation 21:6) And the good news is that through Christ God made a way for us to be reconciled to him.
We need reconciliation because he is perfectly righteous and we are not. Indeed, we constantly rebel in horrendous ways, and God is very angry with all the evil in the world—the wars, the oppression, the deception and perversion, the rich growing richer and the poor growing more diseased. For his justice to stand—for that word to have any meaning at all—someone has to pay the penalty for our wrongs.
Again, the good news is that he loves the world and so he has paid the price himself. He has provided the intermediary. “Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.”(Galatians 3:20) That means that though the wages for our sin is death, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) Why? Because he loves to create life and give it in abundance. Look to him, and be saved: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:40)