Monday, April 30, 2007

The Trinity

The great majority of people (Christians included) are completely baffled or put off by the Trinity and how to explain it to others or even comprehend it themselves. In the following paragraphs I will try and bring a hint of clarity to something which so many atheists and Christians alike misrepresent and misinterpret. I will try and include as some relevant scripture verses to lend support to my attempted description of something that is necessarily beyond our feeble finite minds.

Before people object and say "How can you say that we necessarily cannot comprehend the fullness of God", I say to you, how many of you understand the Coriolis effect, seemingly random radioactive decay and the mystery of human love?

There are things which only a select few of the intelligentsia understand, because they are gifted. I'm not saying that Christians are more intelligent than the rest of the world, because that would be untrue; we merely follow one who has the relevant qualification; that is, God. If God is truly God then He must be many orders of magnitude of complexity than we can possibly fathom by ourselves. Luckily God has revealed Himself to us in His Son Jesus Christ.

Central to an understanding of the Trinity is an understanding of the person of Jesus Christ. Luckily through the writings of the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; and the authors of various letters to various churches Paul and John; we can know who Jesus was. The scope of this document is limited in that I am not out to prove the veracity of the Christian Bible and its contents, I am working off the assumption that people curious enough will research other sources to plunder.
Short History
This problem was tackled from two different angles by the two major churches around at the time of Emperor Augustus, the Roman Church (not yet Catholic, just the Roman Church) and the Eastern Church.

The Roman Church were heavily influenced by Greek Platonic ideas of ultimate oneness, so as a result started with the idea of the oneness of God and tried to figure out how the 3 persons of the Trinity fitted into this oneness. This gave rise to Modalism as a result of misunderstanding their intent, which was attempting to prove that the One God is the Father, Son and Spirit. This isn't a very good approach because it gives the impression that there is an underlying essence to the Godhead, rather than the Trinity being God as reflected in Thomas Aquinas' Beatific Vision of God:
"Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence." (SUMMA THEOLOGICA §8)
The Eastern Church on the other hand started out with the 3 persons of the Trinity and tried to work out how they were one. This gave rise to Tritheism as a result of misunderstanding their intent, which was attempting to prove that Father Son and Spirit are the One God. This is the better of the approaches since it uses the Trinity as the base from which to build, rather than some underlying oneness on which to build the Trinity on as reflected in part of the Athanasian Creed:
15. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;
16. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
Various Trinitarian Heresies
The key to attempting to understand the Trinity is to avoid the various heresies that have sprung up over time as people try and fit God into predefined boxes of what they think God should be, rather than relying on God's own revelation of Himself to us through Jesus.
Many Christians view the Trinity as God operating in various 'modes' throughout the history of time. Eg God was the Father in Creation and throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (Christian Old Testament), God was the Son throughout Jesus' life on Earth until the Ascension of Christ, and God is now the Holy Spirit in the present Messianic Age.

This is wrong as it gives the impression that God puts on various 'masks' to suit Him; a consequence of this is that we don't get to know the God behind the masks.

Scriptural Support against Modalism occurs throughout the Bible in various places:
  • When God refers to Himself in the plural (Gen 1:26, 3:22)
  • When the Father sends the Son by the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:20)
  • When the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father to baptize the Son (Mark 1:9-11)
  • When the Son prays to the Father (Matt 26:39)
Many view the Trinity as three individual 'godlets' which merely work together towards a common goal. The Mormons have this view of the Godhead (CARM Apologetics - LDS Doctrines §19).

This is Tritheism as it means that the Trinity would only be one in purpose instead of one unified Being.

Scriptural support against Tritheism occurs throughout the Bible in various places:
  • "Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one" (Deut 6:4)
  • "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30)
  • "For there is but one GOD over all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all!" (1 Cor 8:6)
Patripassionism is related to Modalism, but stresses that that is the same God in the different modes, rather than God hiding behind the different masks of Father, Son and Spirit. It holds that the Father is the Father, the Father is the Son and the Father is the Spirit; that is that the Father suffered on the cross for our sins, as opposed to the God with the mask of the Son. Oneness Pentecostalism holds to this doctrine (CARM Apologetics - Oneness Pentecostalism Teachings §Outside of Orthodoxy¶3,4).

This heresy takes away the deity and preexistence of the person of Jesus Christ, who said Himself that He was pre and coexistent with God the Father when in debate with the Jewish Pharisees.

Scriptual support against Patripassionism occurs throughout the Bible in various places:
The Revealed Trinity
With all the above in mind, we come to the whole point of this post, the actual Trinity! Woo yeah.

First we have to get some relevant vocabulary before we attempt to go through this explanation of the Trinity:
  • Person - Something defined by the relationships between other persons
  • Individual - Something which is separate and unique from other beings, and may be greater or inferior in relation to other beings
The reason this distinction has to be made is because in society is common to view 'individual' and 'person' as interchangeable words. But let me give you the following example:
I am the brother of my sister, and she is a sister because I am her brother.
Now, she could exist as an individual without me needing to exist, but would no longer be a sister. This is the difference between the words 'individual' (me) and person '(brother)'. A person only exists due to the relationships formed or in place, an individual doesn't need to have aspects of person-hood to exist. Just like a coconut is an individual, but doesn't need to be related to by me to necessarily exist.

This understanding of the two terms is crucial to an understanding of the Triune God.
  • The Father is only the Father because of the Son and the love of the Spirit
  • The Son is only the Son because of the Father and the love of the Spirit
  • The Spirit is only the Spirit because of the love between the Father and the Son
They are not individuals; because the Son would not exist without the Father and the love of the Spirit, the Father would not exist without the Son and the love of the Spirit, and the Spirit would not exist without the Father and the Son; they only exist due to the relationships between themselves.

This sorts the problem of Tritheism, in that they are not individual 'godlets', but are a united individual being of three persons.

It also sorts the problem of Modalism, in that God doesn't change His mask depending on the situation; this is seen in that the persons of the Trinity interact with each other, which wouldn't make sense if they were masks.
The Trinity has many possible pitfalls when attempting to understand it, but if you look hard and hard enough it eventually crystallizes and makes sense; sense in the same way that 11-Dimensional String Theory is incomprehensible but works.

I think that we can understand the structure of the Trinity, but the incomprehensible parts would be 'why' it exists, and how it is powerful; that is what I think it means when God says "My ways are higher than your ways" (Isaiah 55:9)

I hope this helps people. It did for me anyway!