That was the first example I remember hearing – 1 substance, 3 states.
St. Patrick of Ireland famously used a three-leaf clover – 3 leaves, 1 plant.
I’ve also heard father, son, and brother or mother, daughter, and sister used as an example – 3 roles, 1 person.
No matter how you explain it, though, the doctrine of the Trinity can be difficult if not impossible to understand. Ever since the Council of Nicaea affirmed “one ousia, three hypostases” or “one essence, three ways of being” Christians across the centuries have struggled to understand how 3 can be one.
Nevertheless, Father, Son, and Spirit is how God has revealed Himself throughout scripture and, as 1 John 5 tells us, “these three are one.”
Not surprisingly then, with its confusing math and complicated theological nuance the doctrine of the Trinity has become all but irrelevant for most Christians today, a theological puzzle which doesn’t seem to have any practical application to real life. It’s just something that needs to be affirmed in order to remain orthodox.
That last part at least is true. The doctrine of the Trinity is as fundamental to the Christian faith as belief in the resurrection. Why? Because “Trinity” isn’t simply a descriptor we attach to God, like “compassionate,” “just,” or “merciful. It is, for the Church, the very essence of God. To say Trinity is to say God. To reject the Trinity is, for the Church, to reject God, for we are not monotheists, we are Trinitarians.
But why does that matter?
Why can’t we just smile and nod when someone asks us if we believe in the Trinity, and then move on to more “important” things?
Because if we are creatures made in the image of God and the life we are called to live is supposed to be modeled after our Creator, then the nature of that God will define the nature of our lives.
Which is why the doctrine of the Trinity, despite its intimidating and esoteric appearance, is actually an incredibly pragmatic doctrine.
For,the Triune life of God declares that God is a being in communion, an eternal relationship of outpouring love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, fundamentally God is a life of loving relationship with the other.
This has or at least should have profound implications for the Christian life.
If we are called to emulate God to the world by being “salt” and “light,” then that emulation, or incarnation, will be found in the way we pour out our love for others. The most perfect example of this outpouring love for others is, of course, found in the life of Jesus who “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.”
The sacrificial love embodied by Jesus is the incarnation of the Trinitarian life of God. As Christians, then, we aren’t simply modeling our lives after Christ. In doing so, we are actually modeling our lives after the Triune life of God, just as Jesus did himself. When this happens we prove the truth of the imago dei – that we are creatures made in the image of our Creator.
It is this life of outpouring love by which the Son and the Spirit “proceed” from the Father. It is this same outpouring love that spurred God to create. And it was this outpouring love which drove God towards God’s incarnation in Jesus and death on the cross. This is what it means, what it looks like to say “God is love.” It’s not merely an emotion. It’s a way of being in and for the world.
If we focus only on the confusing math of it all, then we miss what the Church was trying to affirming with the doctrine of the Trinity – that we worship a God whose nature is fundamentally defined by a unified love for the other and that our lives must be modeled after this other oriented love.
I can’t tell you how three can be one.
But I can affirm the doctrine of the Trinity.
Because in the Trinity I see God worth worshiping.
I see a God who chose not to stay wrapped up in Himself, but instead poured out His love by creating all that is in existence so that He could be in a loving relationship with the other – us. And even when we rejected that love, the Trinity continued to pour out God’s love by taking on flesh, dwelling among us, and dying that we might live.
While the math may be confusing, the life of sacrificial love for the other that we see in the Trinity is a simple, beautiful, and holy example of a life all of us are capable of embodying, a life all of us should embody as people made in the image of God.
Grace and peace,
On Monday I’ll be looking at some of the attributes of God – Is God omnipotent? Does God know the future? Is God affected by creation? Does God change? That sort of thing. Until then, I want to hear from you. What do you think about the doctrine of the Trinity?