Dan Brown in his 2003 book The DaVinci Code claims that the Trinity was a fourth century invention. He wasn’t the first person to suggest this, but his book placed doubt regarding the historical origins of the Christian faith and the role of the Gnostic gospels.
All good errors are based on a partial truth. And Brown was partially right. There was a fourth-century council and there are gnostic gospels. There are many so-called gospels that didn’t make the cut and get into the canon of scripture. But not for the reasons that Brown maintains! I’ll leave aside discussions of the gnostic gospels – but let’s look at the Trinity, as it’s appropriately Trinity Sunday.
Despite writing a work of fiction Brown maintained that his book was based on fact. But what are the facts behind the Trinity? Is it really a fourth-century mash up?
It was in the fourth century that the council of Nicea affirmed the idea of God as Trinity. But they didn’t come up with the idea, they drew together and clarified Trinitarian beliefs. Beliefs that were held from the early days of Christianity.
The idea of a Trinity has always caused problems, the one time president of the United States Thomas Jefferson wrote of the “incomprehensible jargon of Trinitarian arithmetic”!
On one level it does sound ridiculous. How could three be one?
The physicist Richard Feynman is alleged to have said that “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”! The same could be said of the Trinity, “If you think you understand the Trinity, you don’t understand the Trinity!”
Numerous illustrations have been used unsuccessfully in an attempt to describe the Trinity:
- A three-leaf clover
- An egg: with a shell, albumen and yolk
- The three states of water: ice, water and steam
- Humans as being in the image of God: Body, soul and spirit.
We’ll look at the problems with these illustrations and I’ll give you a better one! So, a small incentive to keep listening!
There are three important aspects to the Trinity:
Threeness, oneness and equality.
To help us remember this think of a TOE!
However, I want to slightly change the order:
- Threeness and
The Trinity is human attempt to see God as he has revealed himself as three (persons) in one (nature). There is a unity and plurality in God: a unity within diversity.
God has revealed himself as one “what” but three “whos”!
Let’s look at these three aspects: One-ness, three-ness and equality.
The Bible is clear God is one cf. Deut 6 - the shema.
This stresses the oneness of God. But the Hebrew word for one here is not an arithmetic one, but a unity within diversity. So, even in this oneness there is a suggestion of plurality.
The Jews held very strongly to this belief in one God (aka monotheism).
However, it is also clear that from the New Testament Jesus is God and that the Holy Spirit is God.
It wasn’t the council of Nicea that out of the blue came up with the concept of Trinity. It was there in the early church from the beginning:
In Matt 28 Jesus commissions the disciples –he uses one name.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
Paul in one of the earliest letters wrote (2 Cor 13:14)
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.These are not proof texts for the doctrine of the Trinity; but they do show that the early church were starting to see Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one.
It was clear to the early Christians that Jesus was truly human. He had human emotions, experiences - he became tired and hungry, he at times was angry, he was tempted.
But he is also God.
But let’s look a little closer at the divinity of Jesus. This is perhaps the most important question we can be asked: What do you think of Jesus? It’s a great question for evangelism. People don’t like much to talk about religion, but they have time for Jesus. To be an effective witnesses we can ask questions rather than make statements.
One great question is what do you think of Jesus?
Most will agree that he was a good human, but is he more. We looked at toes – now it’s time for HANDS! (I’ve borrowed some of these ideas from this book: Putting Jesus in His Place)
The New Testament teaches that Jesus deserves the honors only due to God, He shares the attributes that only God possesses, He is given names that can only be given to God, He performs deeds that only God can perform, and he possesses a seat on the throne of God.
Glory, worship, prayer and honour are all given to Jesus and he accepted them.
He is pre-existent
This is clearly seen in the opening of John’s Gospel:
John 1: 1 In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
Name above every name
The first and the last (Rev 1 cf Is 41:4)
God and Lord
Thomas said to Jesus after he had felt his words: “My Lord and God” John 20:28. Jesus didn’t argue with him!I AM
"Before Abraham was I AM" John 8: 58 Jesus declared. The Jewish crowd's response was to stone him – the punishment for blasphemy. The crowds knew who Jesus was claiming to be.
Creator (John 1:3)
Ruling for ever
God’s highest throne
The Holy Spirit is a person
But he is also God.
3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”The Trinity is a way of acknowledging that there is one God in three persons. It was a way of coming to terms with the deity of Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Father and yet maintain the faith in one God.
Each person of the Trinity is equally God. They have different roles but there is no hierarchy in the Trinity.
God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equally God.
There is a mutuality not a hierarchy.
A mutual submission to each other and a mutual glorifying of each other.
As Basil of Caesera puts it:
We perceive the operation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one and the same, in no respect showing differences or variation; from this identity of operation we necessarily infer the unity of nature.Each of the three aspects of one-ness, three-ness and equality are important to the whole. If we overstress one aspect or deny another we get into heresy. The sort of heresies the early church were addressing and dealt with at Nicea and other church councils.
If we over stress one-ness we overemphasis God’s unity. We have One God in three forms (modalism) – those of you have read the Shack, may recognise this version of the Trinity portrayed there. The analogy of ice, water and steam is also promoting this modalist view of God.
On the other hand if we stress the three-ness, we can have three gods: this has been called tri-theism. Another version of this is partialism: Seeing God as the three parts of an egg or as a three-leaf clover, falls into this trap.
If we deny the equality aspect – then we fall into subordinationism. There are different forms of this, but most entail some sort of hierarchy in the godhead: Jesus and the Holy Spirit are creations of God the Father, that become gods.
So, what is a better model? This is not without its faults – but I’ll put it out there.
You may recall in Harry Potter Hagrid has a dog that guarded the Philosopher’s Stone called Fluffy. (In Greek myths, Cerberus, a three-headed dog guarded the gates to hell.)
It is one dog, but with three personalities: each head would have independent thought, but they work together as one.
But, I hear you ask: So what?
The so what?
The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck wrote:
The doctrine of the Trinity is of incalculable importance for the Christian religion. The entire Christian belief system, all of special revelation, stands or falls with the confession of God's Trinity. It is the core of the Christian faith, the root of all its dogmas, the basic content of the new covenant. It was this religious Christian interest, accordingly, that sparked the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. At stake in this development - let it be said emphatically - was not a metaphysical theory or a philosophical speculation but the essence of the Christian religion itself. This is so strongly felt that all who value being called a Christian recognize and believe in a king of Trinity. The profoundest question implicit in every Christian creed and system f theology is how God can be both one and yet three. Christian truth in all its parts comes into its own to a lesser or greater degree depending on how that question is answered. In the doctrine of the Trinity we feel the heartbeat of God's entire revelation for the redemption of humanity." (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2: God and Creation, Baker, 2006, p. 333).
1. The distinguishing mark of orthodox Christianity.
Every cult or sect gets the Trinity wrong.
If Jesus were not God and he were not human then we cannot be saved.
Do all religions lead to God? The Trinity shows they can’t.
All other religions are about humanity trying to get to God through some way or another.
It is only in Christianity that God comes to us, in the form of Jesus. If Jesus was not God then what he did for us on the cross would be of no effect.
God reveals himself and redeems creation in a Trinitarian way.
The Father sends his Son by the SpiritWe are born into God’s family in a Trinitarian way:
Jesus does the work of his Father (John 5:17) by the power of the Spirit (Luke 3:22; 4:18)
The Father raises Jesus from the dead (Acts 2:24) by the power of the Spirit (Rom. 1:4).
We are born of the Spirit – the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son
It is the Spirit that helps us to cry Abba father.
The Trinity is involved in our prayer:
We pray to the Father, though the Son by the Holy Spirit.
When we don’t know what or how to pray, the Spirit helps us – he enable us to cry Abba Father, all on the basis of Jesus as the mediator, our great high priest.
Relationship is at the heart of God. Within the Godhead there is a unity within diversity. There is difference but acceptance. There is co-operation, self-giving love, equality. Each person of the Trinity has a role, each works together as one. What a model for family, for church for life! We can accept difference without division; not everyone will be like us and that’s good! The Trinity provides a model of loving unity within real diversity. Difference doesn't have to mean division.
5. Family life
This my be a little controversial for some – but I’ll throw it out anyway.
All too often people of my gender have been all too keen to stress: wives submit to your husbands. We forget the context: the previous verse: mutual submission. It’s like that in the Trinity, why should it be any different in the family?
All too often we can get stressed out by mission. We know it’s something we should be doing and often fail at it. But we forget – we don’t have to do it! We have to let God do it through us. Stop struggling, stop striving rest in God’s grace.
As the Father has sent me so I send you.
Receive the Holy Spirit.
The disciples had to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, that gave them the power to be disciples. That Spirit is the same Spirt that raised Jesus from the dead.
We are more than equipped by the Holy Spirit to enable us to be witnesses. So we can make disciples in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It is by knowing God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, knowing the three distinct persons as one God that our worship, our mission, our relationships and the whole of our lives can be lived in faithful obedience.