Jonathan R. Wilson
Pioneer McDonald Professor of Theology
Carey Theological College

If this would opening you and written have syntax it great grammar is understanding then you proper wouldn’t with sentence difficulty?

No, I have not become incapable of grammatical writing; I do still know how to write an English sentence. But those words that lead off this essay will eventually help me “make sense” of the doctrine of the Trinity.

For many years as a Christian—even after several years of theological education—I regarded the doctrine of the Trinity as something that the Bible taught and the church confessed, but I didn’t understand. It made no sense to me and made no impact on my faith. I suspect that many Christians are like that—accepting the doctrine, confessing it, and having no idea how it might have an impact on their lives of faith.

That is how I was; but today I know and teach the doctrine of the Trinity as “an eminently practical doctrine.” (Catherine Mowry LaCugna) This change in my understanding came as I learned to approach doctrine as I described it in my previous article: as the means by which the church teaches us the Biblical vision and the practices of discipleship. Then the doctrine of the Trinity began to make sense.

MAKING A START

Before I try to make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity I must make clear what Christians mean by “Trinity.” That term confesses that there is a threeness and a oneness to God. One common misconception that I hear among Christians is the belief that “Trinity” refers only to the threeness of God. Trinity is actually a contraction of tri-unity, so that it combines both threeness and oneness in one term. Christians have agreed over the centuries that the most basic way to state the oneness and threeness of God is to say one God in three persons. But such statements only define what we mean by “Trinity”; they do not tell us how the doctrine “makes sense.”

MOVING CLOSER

A few preliminary comments will move us a bit closer to making sense of the doctrine of the Trinity. First, let us remember that our salvation does not depend on our getting the doctrine of the Trinity right and being able to explain it. We are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ; not by right doctrine. Many wonderful followers of Jesus Christ have been saved without “knowing” this doctrine. Since the doctrine of the Trinity was stated by theologians sometime after the second century, we may even list the NT authors as examples of this observation. Their faith was Trinitarian, we may say, even though they did not have the actual term “Trinity.”

Secondly, however, the doctrine of the Trinity is central to Christian faith. It was adopted and confessed by the church because it made sense of the biblical teaching and their experience of salvation. Although the NT does not explicitly use the term “Trinity,” we do see in its witness the outlines and foundations of the doctrine. Accounts of the baptism of Jesus and the great commission (Matthew 3; 28, for example) are Trinitarian in their content. Paul’s thinking is also Trinitarian in its shape—his prayers, his benedictions, and his account of salvation depend upon a Trinitarian understanding of God (Eph 1, for example).

Third, we will never fully comprehend God nor will we ever fuller grasp this doctrine. To be sure, we can know God through God’s gracious revelation and the work of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, that knowledge can be trusted and relied upon. But if we could fully comprehend God, then that would make God . . . human-sized. In other words, the only way for us to know God fully would be for God to be no bigger than we are. Paul himself recognizes this after eleven chapters of Spirit-inspired truth, Paul exclaims:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counsellor?”
“Who has ever given to God that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33-36; TNIV)

This attitude of Paul is one that we will adopt as we seek to make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Finally, there are many ways to unpack and celebrate the doctrine of the Trinity. In this short article I will offer one approach that I hope will be fresh and helpful to Christian discipleship. It should be set alongside other approaches that you have found helpful.

THE GRAMMAR OF FAITH

Now back to the first words of this article. Did you understand them? Certainly not at first. I suspect that some readers who delight in solving puzzles figured out what I was “trying” to say. Here it is again, with some revision: “If this opening sentence is not written with proper grammar and syntax, then you would have great difficulty understanding it, wouldn’t you?” Now it is clear isn’t it?

The contrast between these two sentences illustrates the place of the doctrine of the Trinity in Christian faith: the doctrine of the Trinity is the basic grammar of our faith. That is, the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us how to organize the various elements of our faith and state them clearly in worship and witness. In the same way that a language like English has rules that enable it to function properly, so our faith has rules or doctrines that enable it to function properly.

This comparison illuminates a number of things about the doctrine of the Trinity. First, to be properly Trinitarian doesn’t require constant thinking about the doctrine. This is true of grammar in our speaking and writing. To speak and write grammatically I don’t have to be thinking constantly about which grammatical rule to apply. I have been trained well enough that I usually speak and write with proper grammar. And most of the time people understand me. But sometimes I may get the grammar or syntax wrong. When I do get it wrong, either I or someone else needs to know the grammar well enough to correct my misuse. Can you imagine what our communication with one another would become if we neglected or forgot grammar?

BAD TRINITARIAN GRAMMAR?

These same observations may be applied to theology and specifically to the doctrine of the Trinity. Here’s an example of bad Trinitarian grammar: the Father is more God than the Son because the Father did not become incarnate; and the Holy Spirit is less God than the Father or the Son. This statement introduces “ranks” in God—a teaching rejected by the church. Here’s the proper Trinitarian grammar: the Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in their divinity. Here’s another example of bad Trinitarian grammar: the Father is angry, the Son is merciful. This divides the character of God among the persons of God. Here’s the proper grammar: the Father, Son, and Spirit are equally angry at sin, equally loving toward sinners, and equally merciful toward the repentant.

The early church reflected this “grammatical” approach to the doctrine of the Trinity. The teaching of the NT is shaped by Trinitarian grammar even though the term itself never occurs. With the exception of the Athanasian Creed, the creeds of the church do not use the term “Trinity.” Rather, they follow the rule of Trinitarian grammar by confessing one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and by using various means to assert the equality of the three.

GOOD TRINITARIAN GRAMMAR

Today, if we are well-trained, we also use good Trinitarian grammar, even if we don’t think about it very often, just the way we speak grammatically without giving it much thought. Most of the time, we English speakers use the pluperfect tense in our speech even though most of us haven’t a clue what the pluperfect sounds like. In the same way, most of the time Christians observe good Trinitarian grammar even if they cannot name it and haven’t thought about. Both of these practices depend upon some people being skilled in grammar (both in language and in faith) so that they model for the rest of us how to use proper grammar.

THE GRAMMAR OF SALVATION

This means that the doctrine of the Trinity best makes sense when we actually use it. So think with me know about the Trinitarian grammar of salvation. Who saves us—the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit? Trinitarian grammar teaches us that while it is proper to call the incarnate Son our Saviour, he does not act alone for our salvation, as if the Father is surprised by what the Son does. No, Jesus tells us that he does only what the Father has commanded. And he teaches us that the coming of the Holy Spirit will continue and even extend the work that he has accomplished (John 14-16). So a Trinitarian doctrine of salvation could be stated something like this: the Father sends the Son; the Son becomes human, dies in our place, and is raised to new life; the Spirit convicts us of our sin, brings us to faith in Christ, unites us with him, and guarantees our future with Christ in the new creation. In all of this we are reconciled to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If we leave out any step in this account of salvation, we have violated the Trinitarian grammar of our faith. Without the Father’s sending, the Son is not a manifestation of the love of God. Apart from the Son’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, the human condition is not redeemed. If we leave out the work of the Spirit, then we are left without the power of God for our transformation.
Perhaps you may see ways that your own understanding or the teaching of the church has fallen short of a fully Trinitarian grammar of salvation. We have fallen short if we think that God the Son loves us more than God the Father. We may also fall short by thinking that the human condition really isn’t so bad. Does God the Son really have to die for us to be reconciled? Surely the Father loves us so much that Christ’s death wasn’t really necessary. Or we may think that Jesus shows us that we are saved and how we are to live, but we must come to faith and live as Christians by our own effort. All of these reflect bad Trinitarian grammar.

THE GRAMMAR OF CREATION

A more difficult area of Christian faith for Trinitarian grammar is God’s work of creation. Here the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that creation is the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The biblical teaching here is sparse and I don’t have the space to defend and explain this Trinitarian doctrine of creation, but it goes like this: the Father plans creation, the Son implements the plan, and the Spirit sustains its life. In everyday language we might say (cautiously) that the Father is the architect, the Son is the contractor, and the Spirit is the custodian of creation.

As with the Trinitarian doctrine of salvation, the Trinitarian doctrine of creation can also become distorted and ungrammatical. If we do not begin with the plan of God the Father, then creation may seem disorderly and the first, most important thing that we would believe about it is that it needs redemption through the work of God the Son. In making this mistake—neglecting the plan of the Father—we run the risk of forgetting or denying the original and essential goodness of creation.

If we have only the plan of the Father as our doctrine of creation, then we will end up teaching that God originally created the world, then left the world to run on its own according to laws that God designed into the creation. When we make this mistake, we remove both the astounding grace of God that continues to sustain even this fallen rebellious creation and the marvellous mercy of God that redeems this creation through the creative work of the Son.

Finally, if we fail to recognize and teach the continuing work of the Spirit in sustaining and caring for creation we will devalue the present world in which we live. We will fail to give full weight to the passages in the prophets of the OT that announce God’s judgment upon Israel by withdrawing the Spirit that gives life to all creation. And we will fail to see that the present environmental crisis in which the world finds itself is not first of all a failure of our technology but God’s judgment upon our greed and our abuse of God’s world.

MAKING SENSE

So, does the doctrine of the Trinity “make sense”? I have been arguing in this article that the doctrine make sense if we approach it as the rule for how we think about God and God’s work in the world. We make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity not so much by thinking about it as by thinking with it. Much of that time we think with the doctrine of the Trinity without actually thinking about the doctrine. That’s the way it should be. But we should also be aware of ways that we can go wrong when we quit thinking with the doctrine.

As I come to the end of this essay, I am acutely aware of how difficult the doctrine of the Trinity is and how much I have not said or said poorly. I take some comfort in C.S. Lewis’s typically wise observation that a made-up God could be easy to understand. (Mere Christianity, Book IV.2, “The Three-Personal God”) But we have to do with the one true God, the Creator and Redeemer of the Universe, whom we can know truly but never fully. And I take my final comfort in J.I. Packer’s reminder:

“What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it—the fact that He knows me. I am graven on the palms of His hands. I am never out of His mind. All my knowledge of Him depends on His sustained initiative in knowing me. I know Him, because He first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when His eye is off me, or His attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when His care falters.” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God, IVP, 1974)

This is a wonderful example of Trinitarian grammar bearing witness to the grace of God the Father, incarnate in the Son, to which we are united by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Advertisements