Good Questions: Does God as Trinity matter?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

A hard question that might make you dizzy is How can God be three in one? Is the doctrine of the Trinity understandable? Or does it matter? Talk about Good Questions / No Easy Answers!

Don’t just shrug. Exhale. If you don’t get the Trinity, don’t fret: God isn’t issuing demerits. God knows it’s not really explained in the Bible anywhere, and a holy host of devout people have prayed, worshipped, served and lived faithful lives without thinking about it much. I would take note, though, that our greatest, wisest, deepest Christian thinkers almost unanimously do see the One God as Three in One, and their lives of prayer, service and holiness are enriched because of it.

So it this some crazy, divine math? It’s a mystery – which in theology doesn’t mean it makes no sense. Mystery in the Bible is something too profound, to beautiful for a simple explanation to capture. The Trinity isn’t in the Bible – but then it is, just in story form. God the Father sends an angel to tell Mary God will become flesh in her in Jesus, and this will be wrought by the Holy Spirit. When Jesus is baptized, God his Father speaks from heaven, and the Spirit descends on him like a dove.

When Jesus prays, he’s not talking to himself but to God the Father. At the Last Supper, Jesus glorifies God his Father, and promises to send the Spirit to be their comforter, teacher, convictor, and motivator, making Jesus and his Father real for them. That Spirit rushes on the disciples at Pentecost – but that same Spirit was there blowing of the chaos in Creation, and inspiring the prophets.

God is by definition One, yes. We don’t have three gods. But if this One God is imagined to be alone, isolated as the only One, is that God deficient, or missing something crucial and fabulous? You can’t love just within yourself. Love is a relationship. The Trinity suggests that within the One God there is a triangle of relating, a holy dance of eternal partners. They have always loved, before anything came to be. In fact, the whole glorious universe, our world and all of us in it, are simply the overflow of that love that was within God, too great to be contained within God, a love that had to share, to create more love.

The 15th century Russian painter Andrei Rublev bequeathed to us a rightly famous image of the Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, sitting around a table, but with an open fourth spot at that table – implying we are welcome to join them. Prayer, and even the whole Christian life, may be imagined as being invited into their circle, living in fellowship with that Father to whom Jesus prayed, and that Spirit that breathed life into you.

Our minds can’t fathom all this. But a helpful image comes to us from Jeremy Begbie, a professor of theology and music at both Cambridge and Duke. If you play one note on the piano, the sound fills the room, not more present one spot than the other. If you add a second note, both notes fill the room, one not crowding out the other, their harmony heightening the beauty. Add the third note to complete the chord. All three fully filling the place, not one drowned out, the three together a lovely harmony. Think of “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Those first 3 notes form such a chord – and then we sing “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” We praise our way into the Trinity when we worship.

We are coming into a season where the Bible story begins to delve into the complexity that is God, to poke around within the relationships that have always been in God’s self. The Israelites had known of God. But now, instead of remaining aloof and distant, alone and isolated in heaven, God comes down – yet is still up there! – in the infant Jesus taking up residence and growing invisibly in his mother’s womb. In our next email, we’ll try to make sense of all this.

For now, don’t just delete this email and say ‘The Trinity just doesn’t matter to me.’ Ponder. Reflect. Wonder. Wonder some more. Ponder again. No harm will befall you! And you might, over time, join that holy host of saints who’ve treasured finding themselves in the company of that God who is One, but Three in One, an eternal relationship of boundless love.