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Exploration of the Trinity – Introduction

Why Teach Trinity in Sunday School?

Dude…it’s the framework!

  • “Trinitarianism is the encompassing framework within which all Christian thought takes place…Trinity makes possible incarnation, which makes possible atonement” – Fred Sanders.
  • “The Trinity is not one doctrine among others; rather, the Trinity is our interpretive framework for all Scripture and doctrine. The doctrine of the Trinity…shapes and structures Christian faith and practice in every way” – Michael Horton.


Michael Bird puts it this way:

“The Trinity is not simply a convoluted debate about theology but comprises the essential fabric of Christian talk about God. The meaning of salvation, the identity of Jesus Christ, the nature of the church, and a whole lot more stuff rides on the operation and being of God as Trinity. So it is crucial that Christians get some kind of grip on the Trinity as part of their faith in God and as part of their attempt to know God better” – Michael Bird.



The Plan:

To hopefully show why Michael Bird is correct in his above assessment (and if the Trinity is a framework), we will:

  • Survey the relevant Biblical and 2nd Temple Jewish landscape.
    • Including Monotheism.
    • Including Christology.
    • And specific relevant Biblical passages (contrasting Trinitarian and Unitarian takes).
  • Survey recent philosophical attempts to make sense of how one God can be three persons.
    • Mysterian Trinitarianism (MT).
    • Latin Trinitarianism (LT).
    • Social Trinitarianism (ST).
    • And a few others.
  • Demonstrate the significance of the Trinity to the Christian life.


My hope is that, when we are done, we will demonstrate the following to be wrong.

  • “When it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, most Christians are poor in their understanding, poorer in their articulation, and poorest of all in seeing any way in which the doctrine matters in real life” – Kevin DeYoung.


Let’s begin with various descriptions of the Doctrine of the Trinity.

  • These will lay the foundation we will build upon throughout this series.



The Trinity Described:

The first place we find a formalized view of the Trinity is in the Nicene Creeds.


The Nicene Creeds – from 325 and then modified in 381 – describe the Trinity as follows (edited):

  • “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”
  • “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.”
  • “And we believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.”


Some centuries later a creed affiliated with Athanasius popped up…summarized as follows:

“As the venerable Athanasian Creed puts it, ‘So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet they are not three Gods, but one God.’ Belief in both the distinctness and divinity of the three persons, on one hand, and belief in the oneness or unity of God, on the other hand, are essential to orthodox Christian belief” – Thomas McCall.


The creedal beliefs described above are often presented in the form of a septad.

  • (P1) God is one.
  • (P2) The Father is God.
  • (P3) The Son is God.
  • (P4) The Holy Spirit is God.
  • (P5) The Father is not the Son.
  • (P6) The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
  • (P7) The Holy Spirit is not the Father.


We will refer to this septad frequently throughout this series.



Modern Descriptions of the Trinity:

Michael Horton describes the Trinity this way:

  • “God as one in essence and three in person” – Pilgrim Theology.


Michael Bird says this:

  • “God is a Triune God and always has been a Triune God—a God who is three-in-one, consisting of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all equally divine but fully distinguished persons” – Evangelical Theology.


James White puts it this way:

  • “Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three coequal and coeternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” – Forgotten Trinity.


Justin Taylor, on Desiring God, echoes the above language, and then adds:

  • “We are saying that the Trinity has one What and three Who’s” – Trinity 101.
  • Remember the “one-what”; about to use it again.



So, Why all the Confusion?

All this sounds simple enough.

  • God is one essence, substance, or being and three persons.
  • God is “one-what” and three who’s.


In fact, as Matt Perman argues on Desiring God (What is the doctrine of the Trinity?):

  • “It is not a contradiction for God to be both three and one because He is not three and one in the same way. He is three in a different way than He is one…This is very important: God is one and three at the same time, but not in the same way”.


James White agrees:

  • “We are not saying there are three Beings that are one Being, or three persons that are one person. Such would be self-contradictory” – Forgotten Trinity.


Well, not so fast!

  • We need to look at the septad again.


Trinitarian Septad:

  • (P1) God is one.
  • (P2) The Father is God.
  • (P3) The Son is God.
  • (P4) The Holy Spirit is God.
  • (P5) The Father is not the Son.
  • (P6) The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
  • (P7) The Holy Spirit is not the Father.


We need to own up to some basic logic entailing the transitive property of equality.


The transitive property is simply this:

  • If A=B and B=C, then A=C.
  • “Equals” here means, “is identical to”.
  • It is an “is” of identity not predication (more on this later).


An illustration will help us here.

  • Let’s say we have a person, Mark Twain (A).
  • Let’s say we have a “one-what”, “author of Tom Sawyer” (B).
  • And, let’s say we have a person, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (C).


We can then run this through the transitive property.

  • If Mark Twain (A) is identical to “author of Tom Sawyer” (B), and “author of Tom Sawyer” (B) is identical to Samuel Langhorne Clemens (C), then Mark Twain (A) is identical to Samuel Langhorne Clemens (C).


Yep…sounds right.

  • And it certainly wouldn’t make sense here to say, “Mark Twain is not Samuel Langhorne Clemens”.


So, lets run P2 and P3 of the Trinity septad through the transitive property.

  • If the Father (A) is identical to God (B), and God (B) is identical to the Son (C), then the Father (A) is identical to the Son (C).
  • And, as we saw above with Mark Twain, it would make no sense to say, “The Father is not the Son”.


Whoa! This is not what we want.

  • And with this, we begin to see the problem.


To further clarify, look at it this way (using the God as “one what” idea).

  • The Father is a person who is identical to “one-what” – and he is fully “one-what”.
  • But, Jesus is also a person who is identical to “one-what” – and he is fully “one-what”.
  • If they are each fully “one-what”, then they are the same person – “one-what”.
  • And, like Mark Twain and Samuel Langhorne Clemens, “one-what” has different names.


And consider this line of reasoning from Dale Tuggy.

  • We affirm that Jesus is God.
  • But, aren’t there things true of Jesus that aren’t true of God?
  • For example, “God is a Trinity. Jesus is not a Trinity.”


Well then, if Jesus is God, shouldn’t he be Trinity?

  • If God is something that Jesus is not, Jesus is not God.



Hold Up!

Obviously, all of this is something we can’t accept as Trinitarians.

  • We need to find some resolution to these problems.
  • And if the Trinity is true (which I believe it is), the solution can’t be to deny that Jesus is fully God.


And as if the logic of the Trinity isn’t confusing enough…

  • The Bible itself says things that seem to be confusing when we have the Trinity in mind.
  • We will hit on some of these in the coming weeks.


So where does this honest examination of the problems of the Trinity leave us?

  • It leaves us in the position of deconstructing our unexamined beliefs about the Trinity and rebuilding them.
  • It leaves us in the position of having to give good reasons for affirming the Trinity.
  • But…we will have to dig deep to get them.



Not Easy:

And it ain’t gonna be easy!

“Immanuel Kant famously concluded that the dogma of the Trinity was inconceivable as a concept and irrelevant to practical religion” – Scott R. Swain.


And even those who are a bit more optimistic readily admit that it is a “mysterious reality” (William Hasker).

  • “If the doctrine of the Trinity is true…we should hardly be surprised that it is mysterious” – Thomas McCall.
  • “There are only three great mysteries at the very heart of Christianity: the atonement, the incarnation, and the Trinity” – Fred Sanders.



The Mystery:

But what does it mean to call the Trinity a mystery?

  • On a topic like this, it is a huge temptation to appeal to mystery at almost every step of the way.
  • When we do so we need to be clear about what we are doing or saying.



Dale Tuggy says there are 4 kinds of appeal to mystery when faced with the problems we just raised.

  • (1) Redirection
  • (2) Restraint
  • (3) Resolution
  • (4) Resistance



(1) Redirection:

Appealing to this version of mystery is to just ignore the problems and change the subject.

  • Something like, “I’ll leave that to God it doesn’t really concern me”.
  • “I don’t really care”.


Redirection is an approach to be avoided.

  • It comes across as a cop out and avoidance of the issue.
  • It comes across as intellectually lazy.
  • It comes across as showing contempt for understanding the things of God.


Peter would have a problem with this approach.

  • 2 Peter 3:18a (ESV) — 18a But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


Fortunately, the appeals to mystery that are left are a bit more intellectually honest.

  • They concede that special pleading (ignoring the problems) doesn’t make them go away.
  • “Able and responsible thinkers squarely face the appearance of contradiction, and seek to deal with it” – Dale Tuggy.


Who doesn’t want to be an “able and responsible [Christian] thinker”?



(2) Restraint:

The one who appeals to this version of mystery faces up to the problems and…

  • Will admit, “that a certain way of understanding the doctrine of the Trinity seems inconsistent” – Dale Tuggy.
  • But, nevertheless, this person will remain “committed to the truth” of the Trinity – Dale Tuggy.


And a reason for doing so is simply this:

  • Certainly, “Smarter, or more informed…” folks, from Athanasius, to Leibniz, to William Lane Craig, have all “…understood it” (Dale Tuggy).
  • So I defer to them; I piggy back on them.
  • Tuggy sees this view as a stalling tactic, which will ultimately have to be abandoned.



(3) Resolution:

Those who appeal to this version of mystery also face up to the problems…

  • And they deal with them, “by reinterpreting or revising the doctrines in question” – James Anderson.
  • In other words, the mystery arises because the creeds weren’t precise enough, or maybe too precise, or maybe got something wrong, or had poor presuppositions, etc.
  • Fix the creeds and we fix the problem.



(4) Resistance:

Those who appeal to this version of mystery also face up to the problems…

  • And they do so by believing “that the reasonable response is to learn to live with them” – Dale Tuggy.


In other words…

  • “We may not be able to banish the [problems], but we can at least tolerate them without sacrificing our rationality in the process” – James Anderson.
  • This is the “Mysterian Trinitarianism” mentioned earlier and which we will cover later.
  • It argues that the contradictions are merely apparent and not real.


Now, I said Tuggy gives 4 appeals to mystery.

  • But, I think we need to add one more…just for fun.
  • We will call it “Relational”.
  • Even though I think, at the end of the day, it is just a form of the “Redirect” approach.



(5) Relational:

This approach seems to flatten out the problems altogether.

  • “…God’s Mystery is not marked out by a realm that lies beyond our knowing…” And it does not, “lie beyond the finite limits of our intellect. Rather God is Real in our encounter with Him, and in just this way, is exceeding Mystery…” – Katherine Sonderegger.


This approach is rather shocking.


It doesn’t source the mystery to:

  • God’s transcendence.
  • Or, our creaturely brainpower.
  • Or, problematic propositions.


Mystery, on this approach, turns out to be:

  • Just who God is.
  • God is Mystery like Mark Twain is Samuel Langhorne Clemens.
  • So to encounter God is to encounter Mystery.
  • (Not to sure about this one folks.)



Mystery Wrap-Up:

So whatever we do going forward we have to avoid the first approach – Redirection.

  • Too much is at stake.
  • The Trinity informs our view of Jesus and the Incarnation.
  • It impacts our witness to Jews.
  • It impacts our witness to Muslims.
  • And on and on…


Next week, we begin to cover the Biblical landscape that informs the doctrine of the Trinity.