As we work our way through the SEND International Statement of Faith, we come to the triune nature of God. The doctrine of the Trinity distinguishes Christianity from all other religions. The second point in SEND International’s Statement of Faith says that we believe “that there is only one true God, eternally existing in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The central question of this series is: how does the statement of faith hold us?
1. How does this statement hold our thinking?
Millard J. Erickson writes, “A powerful evangelistic and missionary implication is involved in this doctrine” (Erickson, Making Sense of the Trinity, Baker, 2000, 77). While we are walking in the foothills of mystery, there is no Christianity and no salvation apart from the doctrine of the Trinity. Religious systems which do not affirm the Trinity are false in their statements about God. The doctrine of the Trinity is not peripheral. We cannot neglect this doctrine and remain faithful to our calling.
K. K. Yeo quoting Bruce M. Stephens writes; “Indeed, ‘one is in danger of losing [one’s] soul by denying the Trinity and losing [one’s] wits by trying to understand it’ – but believe and understand we must.” (The Trinity Among the Nations: The Doctrine of God in the Majority World, edited by Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue and K. K. Yeo, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015, 1)
This is a difficult doctrine. John S. Feinberg writes,
As some have suggested, when it comes to the typical Christian in the pew (even very conservative ones), though they assent to this doctrine, few understand what it says, and many actually live as practical tritheists. That is, in the minds of many, God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are divine, but they often think of them and relate to them as though they were three separate Gods. (No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God, Crossway, 2001, 439)
This is not the place to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity (I direct you to the sources cited above or to your favorite systematic theology). We run into problems whenever we emphasize one part of this doctrine at the expense of the other. I find it helpful to be reminded of the words of Gregory of Nazianzus (325-391AD), “I cannot think of one without being instantly surrounded with the splendor of three; nor can I discern the three without being suddenly attracted to one.” (quoted in Kelly Kapic, Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen, Baker, 2007, 164). We also run into problems when we seek for understanding without a place for mystery. We are finite beings that cannot understand God in his fullness. We are dependent on his self-revelation (the Bible).
Some neglect this doctrine because they think it’s only of interest to systematic theologians. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Scott R. Swain have written a helpful book (Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel, IVP, 2008) demonstrating how the Gospel of John contributes to our understanding of the Trinity. They write:
John, we should add, sees no tension between the unity of one glorious Godhead, shared equally and identically by three persons, and a relational order, or taxis [arrangement, division], among the persons, a taxis revealed in the salvation-historical missions of the Son, and the Spirit and rooted in their eternal relationships. But neither does John attempt to explain this mystery. Rather, John simply testifies to the one God – Father, Son and Spirit – in order that we too may enter into the Father’s love for the Son in the fellowship of the Spirit. (p. 186)
The doctrine of the Trinity is rooted in Scripture. The early church sought to bring together the data of the Bible on the unity of God and the deity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This doctrine is manifest in the unfolding and accomplishment of our salvation for God’s glory.
Furthermore, that the “one true God eternally exists in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit” shows that God is relational. The Bible tells us that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The eternal love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit helps us understand this relational truth about God. Gerald Bray writes:
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is that God is love, and that he manifests himself to us as a community in which his love is perfected. Love is not a substance, not a thing that can be objectified and defined, but it is a reality and constitutes the being of God. Those who live in love are the persons of the Trinity, and it is as persons created in God’s image that we are invited to share in their eternal fellowship. (The Trinity Among the Nations, 36)
2. How does this statement hold our emotions and will?
Our longing for community has its roots in the triune nature of God in whose image we are made. We were made to love and enjoy him. Our love towards God (and one another) depends on God’s love for us (1 John 4:10). We are brought into this eternal fellowship of the Trinity by means of the Gospel. Titus 3: 4-7 states,
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (ESV)
The Trinity restrains our desire to domesticate God. We are humbled by the mystery and yet moved to worship the splendor of the “one true God, eternally existing in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
3. How does this statement hold our actions?
The doctrine of the Trinity must be central in our proclamation of the Gospel. The Gospel cannot be articulated apart from the “one true God, eternally existing in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
The gospel restores us to fellowship with the Triune God. So we must practice this fellowship or communion (as John Owen calls it). Owen published Communion with the Triune God in 1657 (the original title was Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Each Person Distinctly, in Love, Grace, and Consolation; or, The Saints’ Fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost Unfolded). A modern version edited by Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor was published by Crossway books in 2007. In this classic work Owen details how we enjoy communion with the Father in love, the Son in grace, and the Spirit in consolation (comfort). I highly recommend that you read Owen’s work, though reading Kapic’s book on Owen first will be helpful. Kelly Kapic describes Owen’s practical application of the Trinity:
Owen’s entire book shows how this doctrine speaks powerfully to the believer’s relationship to God, both in understanding the structure of that relationship and in experiencing it. Since God has revealed himself, not as an undifferentiated Godhead but as triune, Owen calls believers to consider how they may commune with the three persons without abandoning the unity of God. We found him denying that God is a distant deity and unconcerned with the affairs of the world; instead, Owen presents God as triune, whose loving movement toward humanity brings about communion between God and humans. Rather than being angry and arbitrary, the Father is the fountain or ocean of love, overflowing not simply to the other persons of the Trinity, but also to the world. As the Son delights in the Father, he willingly comes as the “sent one” whose unique person makes it possible for him to act as the mediator. Consequently, the Son, out of his own delight, acceptance, and love for his people, is able to secure the redemption of the church. The believer also communes with the Holy Spirit, who deserves equal honor and worship with the Father and the Son. The Third Person of the Trinity constantly draws believers to Christ, where they may find comfort during their earthly pilgrimage. In sum, we have displayed Owen’s hope that believers equipped with a proper Trinitarian appreciation of the love, grace, and consolation of God will find themselves in intimate communion with him. (Kelly Kapic, Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen, p. 204, 205)