Sunday, 15 June 2014

Who cares about the doctrine of the Trinity?

Today is Trinity Sunday. This morning I had the privilege of preaching on the subject of the Trinity. But who really cares about this doctrine? The German philisopher Immanuel Kant certainly didn't see any benefit in knowing about or holding to the doctrine of the Trinity. He argued that "the doctrine of the Trinity provides nothing, absolutely nothing of practical value, even if one claims to understand it; still less when one is convinced that it far surpasses our understanding..."

I believe that the opposite is true. The doctrine of the Trinity is fundamental to the Christian faith and is also of great practical value for the Christian. But before I proceed, let me briefly state what I mean when I speak about the Trinity.

The doctrine of the Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity consists of three parts, each of which are vital and cannot be left out:

  1. There is only one God.
  2. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all equally God.
  3. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are different persons.

One attempt of illustrating this is the following diagram:

Picture: Public domain

While the word "trinity" is nowhere to be found in the Bible, the Bible is clear that there is only one God (e.g. Deut. 6:4), that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are different persons (e.g. Lu. 3:21-22) and that each of them is fully God (e.g. Eph. 4:6; John 1:1; Acts 5:3-4).

Can you understand this or explain this? No. Nobody can. What makes you think you would be able to? God is the one who created us - not vice versa. So He understands and knows all about us, but we are limited in our understanding and cannot explain everything about Him.

But we can believe what the Bible teaches us and accept it as God's truth, even though we may not understand it fully. Martin Luther said,
Now, when you are asked to explain the Trinity, reply that it is an incomprehensible mystery, beyond the understanding of angels and creatures, the knowledge of which is confined to the revelations of Scripture. (Second sermon on Trinity Sunday in: Luther's Epistle Sermons, Vol. III)
When we look into Scripture, we find the Trinity in multiple places, starting with the creation of the world in Genesis.

The Trinity seen in the creation of the world

The very first verse in the Bible reads,
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." (Gen. 1:1)
What is interesting here, is that the Hebrew word translated as "God" is "elohim", a noun with a plural form ending but which takes a singular verb form. This already hints at a plurality in God, but it becomes even clearer a bit later on in the narrative:
"And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness..." (Gen. 1:26)
Who is God talking to here? Who is the "us" and the "our"? This again points to the other persons in the Trinity.

The Gospel of John also starts out by telling us about the "beginning":
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God." (John 1:1-2)
Later in the passage (v. 14), it becomes clear that the "Word" refers to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus was in the beginning, He was with God and He was God. He is a different person, but the same God.

Now, who created the world? Was it God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit? Or the Trinity together?

The answer is given in John 1:3, where it still speaks about the "Word" i.e. Jesus Christ:
"All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made."
Jesus Christ is the one who created everything. The fact that God the Father created through His Word is also seen in the way the creation is described in Genesis 1:
"And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." (Gen. 1:3)
And what about the Holy Spirit? Not much is said about the Holy Spirit's role in creation, except the following:
"And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." (Gen. 1:2b)
So we see the Father as the one who speaks or ordains, the Son as the one who acts, and the Holy Spirit as the one who has been sent from heaven to earth.

Let us consider two more examples to see if these roles of the Trinity can be seen elsewhere in Scripture.

The Trinity seen in the baptism of Jesus
Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased. (Lu. 3:21-22)
Here is another passage where we see all persons of the Trinity together. Once again, we see Jesus acting (being baptised and praying), the Holy Spirit descending and the Father speaking.

The Trinity seen in the salvation of people
Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ... (1 Pet. 1:2a)
God the Father's role in the salvation of people is electing those who are to be saved (cf. Eph. 1:3-5). He declares whom He wants to choose to be a part of His family. But it is not the Father who accomplishes the actual work of salvation. God the Father sends His Son to the world to die on the cross for our sins so that God's wrath against sin is absorbed and we can be forgiven. (John 8:42)

God the Son's role in the salvation of people is His obedience to the will of the Father (John 6:38) and His death on the cross for the sins of mankind (Eph. 1:7).

God the Holy Spirit's role in salvation is being sent by both the Father and the Son (John 14:26; 15:26), giving new life (regeneration) to people so they believe the gospel and trust in Christ (Tit. 3:5), and sanctifying (Rom. 8:13) and empowering (Acts 1:8) these people for service.

Differences in roles do not mean differences in divinity

So in all of these instances in which we see the Trinity involved, we see the Father as the one who plans, determines and speaks, the Son as the one who obeys and acts, and the Holy Spirit as the one who confirms and brings to completion.

We clearly see that the persons of the Trinity have different roles, but this does not mean that any one of the persons of the Trinity is somehow less "God" than another. Each is fully God.

Practical implications of the doctrine of the Trinity

I believe that we can practially apply the doctrine of the trinity in at least three areas:

  1. Humility

    The doctrine of the Trinity is not a mystery or a riddle that God gives us to see who is clever enough to understand it. Quite the opposite - the doctrine of the Trinity should show us how incapable we are to fully grasp the greatness of God and His being with our small and limited minds. Thomas à Kempis wrote, "Of what use is it to discourse learnedly on the Trinity, if you lack humility and therefore displease the Trinity?" Let us learn from this doctrine to be humble.

  2. Worship

    The more we learn about the different persons of the Trinity, especially in their different roles in accomplishing salvation for us, the more we should naturally stand in awe of God's great wisdom and power and love. If there were no Trinity, there would also be no salvation for us, because somebody was needed to act as a mediator between God and man, and this could only be done by Jesus Christ, who "being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." (Phil. 2:6-8)

  3. Community

    The Trinity is the perfect community. God is love and each person of the Trinity loves and complements the others. This should teach us something about marriage. Marriage is a community of one man and one woman who serve one another in love. The husband and the wife have different roles in marriage. These different roles should not conflict, but rather complement one another. The church is also a community where unity is to be seen among the different members of the one body. Jesus prayed that those who believe on Him "all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me." (John 17:21)


Anonymous said...

Your quote from Kant is very misleading. I do not know where you found that passage (there are simply to many people who quote it without discussing the context). Yes, one can find it in Kant's work (Streit der Fakultäten), but a careful reading of that passage would reveal that he is actually saying the exact opposite of what you make him say here. He writes: "[...] taken literally [...]". This alone should be reason enough this ask: is there another way to unterstand it? Not much later he adds: "On the other hand, if we read a moral meaning into this article of faith (as I have tried to do in Religion within the Limits etc.) [...]". He refers to one of his other books, where he elaborates on the practical meaning of the love of God and the concept of the Trinity (third part). That would be a better starting point for a discussion with Kant. Not the quote you present.

Michael Schmid said...

Thank you for your comment. I don't remember now where I found the quote, but I found it to be a very interesting statement which raises the question: Is there any practical value in learning about the Trinity or not - regardless of whether one assumes to understand it or not? I would be interested in reading what Kant has to say about the practical meaning of the love of God and the concept of the Trinity. Is the name of the book where this is found called "Religion within the Limits"? Or is the title of the book different?