The first biblical ‘paradox’ I’d like to talk about is the doctrine of the Trinity. There was a period in my life where I really struggled to understand and love the Trinity. As I wrestled with my doubts, I read several books on the topic hoping to find some answers. By far the most helpful book I read was Michael Reeve’s Delighting in the Trinity (You can read Challies’ review here). Reeve’s helped me to not just accept the doctrine of the Trinity, but to cherish it. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in growing in a deeper understanding of God.
That being said, I want to acknowledge up front that I’ve only scratched the surface in studying the Trinity. I write not as an expert, but as a beginning student. The Trinity is not an easy topic to study, so if you reach different conclusions in your study of the Bible, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. I’m all for any disagreement and discussion that leads to a deeper biblical understanding of and love for our Triune God.
Before we begin, let me give a very quick refresher course on the doctrine of the Trinity:
- God exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are each distinct individuals, with distinct thoughts, feelings, characteristics, and actions. The Father is not the Son. The Father is not the Spirit, nor is the Son the Spirit.
- Each person is fully God: We believe that each person is fully and completely God. As God, each person is equally powerful and equally deserving of glory. None is more powerful or more glorious than the other.
- Yet there is only one true and living God: We do not believe in three gods. We do not believe in a one-person God manifesting himself in three different forms. We do not believe in one God and two super created beings. We believe there is one true and living God, who has existed eternally in three persons.
You can begin to see the difficulty of the Trinity. How are we to understand that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate persons, yet still one God?
In the past, many well-meaning theologians have fallen into heresy trying to reconcile the Trinity with human logic. Others have concluded that Christianity is absurd, while others have tried to get rid of the doctrine altogether. Many of us see the perils of studying the Trinity and in our desire not to be heretics or apostates, we try to talk and think about the Trinity as little as possible.
Is it worth studying the Trinity at all? Can we grapple with the paradox of the Trinity and fall more deeply in love with God? I think so!
For me, the key that helped me see the beauty of the Trinity was understanding God’s eternal intra-trinitarian love. (Yes, I know. It doesn’t sound very beautiful, but hear me out). What do I mean? God’s eternal intra-trinitarian love means that the persons of the Trinity–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–have been sharing perfect love among themselves for all eternity. God, in other words, has always been loving. Before time began, God experienced perfect love within himself.
In Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17, we get a tiny glimpse into the eternal inner life of the Trinity, and the results are some of the most mind-blowing truths in all of Scriptures.
In John 17:24, Jesus prays: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am to see my glory that you have given me because you loved before the foundation of the world.”
Before time began, the Father was giving glory and love to his Son. How are we to understand the Father’s glory? We could describe it as acceptance, approval, and praise. Probably the best way to think about it is to imagine the Father telling the Son how immensely proud of him he is. He loved him with a great love and as a result showered the Son with great love. What does the son do? He responds with loving obedience and submission to his father. So, for all eternity there was this perfect harmonious love between Father and Son. The Father pouring out love like a fountain and the Son responding in love to the Father.
Where does the Holy Spirit fit into this great love?
John 17 focuses primarily on the love between Father and the Son, but we can draw some clues from the rest of the scriptures.
We see elsewhere in the Scriptures that the Father pours out his love through the Holy Spirit. Do you remember Jesus’ at baptism in Matthew 3. As Jesus rises from the water, the skies open up, and the Father declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”. The Father does what he has been doing for all eternity–he is giving glory, praise, and approval to the Son, whom he loves. But do you remember what happens as the Father declares his love? The Holy Spirit comes and rests on Jesus in the form of a dove. Paul, in Romans 5:5 explains how this truth works in our relationship with God: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us”.
Second, we see that in our lives, the Holy Spirit causes us to both know and respond to God’s Fatherly love towards us. In Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6, Paul writes about the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of adoption and sonship, who assures us that we are beloved children of our Heavenly Father. As the Holy Spirit brings God’s love into our hearts, Paul says, we respond by crying, “Abba Father”. If this is true for us, sinners, I think it’s reasonable for us to assume this is supremely true of Jesus, God’s Beloved Son.
We’re starting to get a picture of the massive weight of God’s eternal intra-Trinitarian love. The Father loving the Son through the Holy Spirit. The Son responding to the Father’s Love in the Holy Spirit.
Now, think about massive God’s love is. As humans, even at our best, we have conflict in our relationships. Why? Because we are sinners. When we love, our love is often tainted by our selfishness. Not only that, the ones we love are often selfish well. No friendship, family, or marriage is exempt from our sin. Sooner or later our selfishness will cause us to sin against one another.
It is not that way with God. The Father and Son’s love is perfect–there is no taint of selfishness or sin. The Father has every reason to love and glory in his Son and the Son has every reason to delight and obey his Father. They are united in the deep fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The Father pouring out his love through the Holy Spirit and the Spirit stirring in the Son to cry, “Abba, Father”.
When people talk about the Trinity, people are endlessly trying to come up with analogies and clever explanations to explain how God can be three, yet one. I don’t know if I’ve thought this through enough, but I think perhaps the best way is to think about the massive weight of his love.
From what I can tell, when the Bible talks about oneness, it’s intimately connected to love, commitment and unity. We find for instance, the Bible talking about oneness between husband in wife: “A man shall leave his father and his mother and shall hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The beauty of marriage is that two different individuals are joined in spiritual, emotional, and physical union. We see in Philippians 2, we see that as we, the Church, grow in our knowledge of Christ and our participation in the Spirit, we will increasingly grow in humility and have “the same mind, the same love, being in full accord and of one mind”. The love of the Gospel can take diversity and bring about wonderful oneness as we grow in our love for Jesus.
A husband and a wife may be spiritually, emotionally, and physically one (what a beautiful way of viewing God’s good design for sex!), but they are not literally one. The church can be one in purpose and love as members serve one another humbly, but they are not literally one. But God’s love is so great, his unity and fellowship so perfect, that he is actually one, in every sense of the word. That doesn’t resolve the paradox logically, but that is a kind of paradox that leads me to humble amazed worship.
So far, we’ve seen that if you start with the Trinity, you have a wonderful sharing God of love. What happens if you get rid of the cumbersome doctrine of the Trinity?
Well, if you take away the Trinity, you lose any possibility of God being eternally loving. By definition, in order to be loving, you need someone else to love. You could say you love yourself, but that’s not the kind of love we’re talking about. Instead of being eternally loving, and looking outward to other persons, this God would have been eternally by himself, self-centered, and looking inward.
Whether or not God was eternally loving may seem like semantics, but if you think about it, it’s hugely important for how we view creation. Depending on how you look at it, Genesis 1:1 can either be good or bad news.
If the Triune God creates, it is great news! Here is a God who is fundamentally sharing and loving; so sharing and loving, in fact, that it overflows and explodes into creation. God wants to share his own life with us. The Father wants us to know and understand the beauty of the Son which he has been enjoying for all eternity! We can have great confidence in God’s love because he has forever been a Father in the deepest part of our identity.
On the other hand, if a single-person God, it would be bad news. Why? I can think of only two reasons why he would create. Either he is lonely and needy and wanted someone to praise him. That God would not be very worthy of our worship, would he? He would be weak, insecure, and dependent on his creation. The other reason would be that God created us to rule over us. That would be scary! We see what happens when men are given free-reign and absolute authority to do whatever they want with no accountability, they become terrifying dictators.
In the next post, we’ll look at how understanding God’s eternal intra-trinitarian love expands and deepens the way we understand Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the Cross.