The Trinity explained in a twenty minute talk

  • Earlier this year, Jon the freelance theologian was asked to explain the Trinity to a Christian youth group in a twenty-minute talk. Although it’s impossible to give full justice to the topic, here are some of the points he made.

    We’re going to talk tonight about the Trinity, specifically: how can one God be three persons, or three persons be one God?

    Imagine a person you know. What could you say about them?
    They are a boy/girl/man/woman. They have various attributes – tall/short/thin/not so thin/dark-haired/blonde and so on.

    These are the things we can say about him/her, but they don’t really tell us much.

    One of the reasons we often find the Trinity such a hard concept to grasp is because we get confused about the terms we use.

    The big stumbling block for many people is the word ‘God’, because most of us use the word God as a proper noun – as a name for the being we worship.

    But ‘God’ is not the name of God.

    What is the name of God?
    It was revealed to Moses in the Old Testament. When Moses asked ‘who shall I tell Pharaoh has sent me’, the voice from the burning bush said ‘Tell him, I AM’.

    Now that’s a bit strange, but that’s the name that God chose to reveal to Moses. It is a self-revealed name. In Hebrew it is composed of four letters that we would write as J or Y, H, W or V, H.

    The word Jehovah is one way that some people say that name. (It’s not completely accurate, but that’s a different story.) Scholars tend to refer to it as Yahweh (which U2 used as a song title).

    So what we have here are two words: ‘Yahweh’ and ‘God’. And the clue is how we use those words – Yahweh is God; our God is called Yahweh.

    “Hey man…”
    I’m sure we’ve all done this at some point, started praying and said ‘Dear God…’ You see that sort of thing in books of letters children have written to God. ‘Dear God, please bless mummy and daddy and my hamster. Amen.’

    But actually, that’s not particularly correct. If I spoke to a friend and said ‘Hey, woman’/ ‘Hey, man’ that would be a bit of an odd way to address someone. ‘Hey woman’ sounds a bit harsh, and ‘Hey man’ makes me sound like a hippie.

    Like the words ‘man’ or ‘woman’, ‘God’ is a ‘category of being’. We have Human Beings, we have angelic beings, we have animals, plants, plankton. These are categories or classes of being. ‘God’, if you like, is a type of being. To call anything ‘God’ is to class it as a particular kind of thing.

    So when we say there is one God, we are saying there is one identifiable ‘thing’ that is God.

    But the word God is not necessarily a singular word. Just because there is ‘one God’ does not mean there is only one unit involved.

    Corporate nouns
    There are plenty of other words in our language that suggest a ‘corporate unity’. Take the word family. Let’s take two brothers. There are two of them, but together they are part of one family.

    We already use plural nouns without even thinking about it. Words like family, or company, or battalion, or school, or class, or platoon, or church. One word to describe a number of individuals.

    If we use the word ‘God’ like that then there can be any number of units within that category. Theoretically, we don’t even need to stop at three.

    I have to be very clear here – when we talk about ‘persons’ in the Trinity, we are not talking about three separate gods. Christian theology is not tritheism. We don’t have three gods. Sometimes critics of Christianity will try and say that because we believe God is Trinity, that we have three Gods.

    That’s just not true. What we are saying is there is one God – think of it as the plural noun – but three persons make up that one God. Often in Christian terms, those three persons together are called the ‘Godhead’.

    God in human experience
    So, why Trinity? Well, like I said at the beginning, God was in the burning bush and when Moses asked who was speaking to him, God told him the name ‘I AM’/Yahweh.

    But that’s not the only way that human beings have met God. Central to what we believe as Christians is the idea that Jesus Christ was both a human man and also God. We call it the Incarnation, which literally means ‘in flesh’ (carne in Latin – if you go to an Italian restaurant the meat section is called ‘carne’).

    The people who first followed Jesus – his disciples – started to talk about him being the ‘messiah’, God’s chosen one. In Greek ‘Messiah’ is translated ‘Christos’, which is where we get the word Christ from. Jesus Christ should really by said Jesus the Christ. Christ was not his surname. His parents weren’t Joseph and Mary Christ.

    As Christians we call Jesus ‘the Christ’, which like I said means Messiah, or ‘Anointed one’. It does not necessarily mean that he was divine. But after his resurrection, there is the story about how he appeared to Thomas, the one we call ‘doubting Thomas’. When Thomas saw Jesus raised from the dead, he fell to his knees and called him ‘my Lord and my God’.

    Later the Apostle Paul described the Incarnation using a phrase that we’ve talked about many times in Wave. Jesus “being in very nature God, he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness1 – the bit I want to emphasise there is “being in very nature God”.

    Paul met the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road, you may remember the story – he set out to persecute Christians in Damascus and was stopped by a blinding light and heard Jesus speaking to him from out of the light. Note the parallel with Yahweh speaking to Moses from out of the Burning Bush. And later when Paul writes about Jesus he describes Jesus as “being in very nature God”.

    The third person
    Jesus, of course, refers to his ‘Father’. This is how we come to realise that there are two distinguishable persons here. A Father and a Son. But we don’t just talk about Father and Son, we talk about Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the ‘third’ person in the Trinity

    How do we know the Holy Spirit is divine? Well, in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit is referred to as the Spirit of the LORD, that is, the Spirit of Yahweh. How could the Spirit of Yahweh not be divine?

    Equally, when Jesus talks to his disciples in John’s Gospel, he says that a replacement is coming. He uses the phrase “another comforter”, so classes the Holy Spirit as the same level as himself.2 He also tells his disciples that the Holy Spirit will guide them “in all things”. Who knows everything? God does.

    Distinguishable not distinct
    So, this is the Christian definition of God then – we have three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We know they are distinguishable: The Father says ‘This is my son, with whom I am well pleased’ at Jesus’ baptism. Jesus says the Father will send the Holy Spirit to the disciples. So, they are distinguishable.

    But at the same time, it’s wrong to think of them as distinct. The three persons act in unity – they work in and through each other. So, for example, Jesus says the Father will send the Holy Spirit in the name of the Son. Jesus says that he is one with the Father and if you have seen him (Jesus) then you have seen the Father.3 There is a unity of action and motive and purpose in the way that God acts, although the three persons may each do different things.

    This comes back to the idea of not thinking of ‘God’ as a proper name. If we think of ‘God’ as a category of existence, then we need to define that category of existence. So what do we know? What have people experienced?

    Human beings have experienced God as Yahweh, as a man in Jesus Christ, and as the Holy Spirit. This is what we know.

    ‘God’ then is defined as three persons.

    But unlike in other categories of existence those three persons are distinguishable and yet are not distinct. God does not have three bodies – Jesus tells us that God is Spirit (and should be worshipped in spirit and in truth).4 This is a different kind of being than we are.

    We can be one family of three distinguishable human persons, but we will also be three different persons. But that’s not how it works with God. ‘God’ by very definition is three persons who act in unity. Three act as one.

    God revealed in relationships
    What this tells us about God is very important. The Christian God is unlike any other God in any other religion. The Christian definition of God defines God essentially as relationships between three persons, working together in unity, harmony and love.

    One of the reasons we can be so sure that God wants to have relationships with us is because our understanding of God is of three distinguishable persons in so close a relationship they are almost indistinguishable. The Trinity is essentially a description of utter relationships.

    And we see this in the way we are as human beings because we are made in the image of God. Why do we long for relationships? Why do we try to seek out deep and meaningful friendships? Because we have built into us a desire to relate to other people. That is the image of God in us.

    And so we try all kinds of things to relate. We are limited because we are located in physical bodies, so we get naked and have sex to try and get close to one another. In sexual relationships we are trying to commune with someone else, and relate to them on a deep level. That is why sex is a big deal, because it’s one of the ways we express the God image inside us as we try to relate to other people.

    Our hunger for deep and meaningful friendships – to know and love someone else and to be totally known and loved by them in return isn’t going to be satisfied in this life. Even if we have repented of our sins we still bear the scars of the sins we’ve committed until we are resurrected in new bodies and become like Jesus.

    When we are restored to the true image of God and are persons who are able to fully relate to the persons of the Trinity, that desire for relationship will be met.

    So there you have it, a reasonably brief explanation of the Trinity. Just to recap:

    • ‘God’ is not a name, it’s a description of how something exists
    • The Christian experience is of three distinguishable persons making up one God
    • The three persons act in total unity, so the essence of God is relationships
    • Our desire to be in relationships ourselves is a mark of God’s image in us

    Notes and references
    1: Philippians chapter 2, verses 6-7, paraphrased
    2: See, e.g. John chapter 14, verse 16
    3: John chapter 14, verses 9-10 and John chapter 10, verses 30 and 38
    4: John chapter 4, verse 24

    Questions on this topic:
    Is God the father the boss of the trinity or are they all equal? Does God have a personality disorder, as there are different bits with varying characteristics?

    What does the Bible say about the Trinity?

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  • 1 comment

    1. Nige D Aug 9

      Comprehensive treatment m8!

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