Comprehending the Trinity

  • Question 116, from DW

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    As best you can, could you give me a good analogy of the trinity?

    The Trinity is one of the most difficult Christian doctrines to grasp, simply because it is actually very hard to define how one God can exist in three persons. The tendency is either to stress the one-ness of God, or to place the accent on the plurality of God. Unfortunately to swing too far either way can lead to denying the reality of the Trinity (saying God only appears to be three persons), or towards a version of polytheism.

    Certainly the Trinity is possibly the one doctrine that marked an irrevocable break with monotheistic Judaism. For Christians, the difficulty initially centred on how Jesus, as the Son of God, related to the Father. Was Jesus also divine? Generally early Christian theologians looked to Greek pagan models to explain how Jesus could be divine in a monotheistic setting, hence the use of descriptions like ‘Word’ (logos) in John chapter 1, which borrows heavily from Hellenistic philosophy.

    (NB – just to clarify, even though the language was borrowed from the contemporary culture does not mean the idea was imported into Christianity. Rather the early Christians sought to use phrases that would be understood and recast them to reflect the revelation they were trying to explain.)

    The debate about the divinity of Christ was quickly followed by a discussion regarding the nature of the Holy Spirit, especially by those who felt the developing Trinitarian position went beyond Scripture. One of the first major treatises on the Trinity was a sermon preached in the fourth century by Gregory of Nazianzus . He starts off by saying that there is no possible way to accurately explain the Trinity in terms of metaphor. Amusingly, he then proceeds to outline a possible model for understanding the Trinity, although he does note that it’s flawed.

    Gregory used a literal interpretation of the creation account in Genesis chapter 2, where Adam is created by God, Eve is created from a ‘fragment’ of Adam, and their son Seth is born as a result of their physical union. This shows that three distinct persons could share the same nature, despite originating in different ways – an important point as Gregory’s theological opponents claimed that Jesus was a created being, not fully divine.

    While Gregory’s analogy does fall down in some areas it does show an important feature of theology when the doctrine of the Trinity developed. Over time English-speaking Christians have used the word ‘God’ almost as a proper name. Yet to Gregory and his contemporaries, ‘God’ was not a name; it was a class of being. It made sense to say there was ‘one God, with three persons’, just as it would make sense to say there was ‘one human race, but many different human beings’.

    The difference, of course, between God as state of being and human-ness is that human beings can exist and operate independently of one another. Gregory is at pains to point out that the Trinity operates in unison, even when it seems that one part of the Trinity is operating independently. So, in the incarnate Christ, both the Father and the Holy Spirit were working. After all, Christ was conceived in a human body (incarnated) of the Spirit by the will of the Father.

    Gregory’s metaphor, while crude and based on a view of Scripture that would be overly-literal for some people, does at least show one way of regarding the ‘one God’ as having the potential of more than one person.

    Since the fourth century there have been many attempts to explain the Trinity, using metaphors such as the sun, which exists of itself, but is also seen as light and felt as heat. Another popular metaphor is a triangle, where three lines join to create one shape. The form of human beings as body, mind and spirit is also used, and St Augustine believed that this psychological trinitarianism was because human beings were created in the image of God and so retained a trinitarian nature, the ‘vestigia trinitatis’.

    A twentieth century outlook of the ‘trinity as relationship’, although it does build on many previous ideas, is often attributed to the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann. The simplest summary of this point of view is to see the Trinity in relational terms, so that the persons of the Trinity are distinct, yet inseparable, in a perfect society, just as human beings, as separate individuals find themselves in a society that is larger then their individuality. The benefit of this point of view is it defines God as a relational being, hence involved with creation and other beings, making sense of the redemption story that is the incarnation, death and resurrection of one member of the Trinity.

    In conclusion, it is very hard to develop a model of the Trinity that is both helpful and accurate. However, regarding ‘God’ as a state of being, and the Trinity as a society are two ways to help begin to understand this confusing doctrine.

    Thanks for your question DW.

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