Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Dissecting the Undissectable

God is one. God is three.
God is unity. God is diversity.

These four statements by Stan Grenz summarize the heart of Christian trinitarianism. For trinitarianism to be held in a historic and orthodox manner, each statement must be held in equal balance.

God is one. Christianity is a monotheistic faith. On a cosmic level, God is not in competition with other gods. There is only one God. On a personal level, human beings devote themselves to false gods. In ancient times, these gods made with human hands had names like Baal and Asherah. Today, we are more subtle in how we worship money and sex and power and success. Despite our devotion, these gods are false. It is not that our God is one among many or even first among many. He is the one and only true God. God is one.

And God is three. This one God exists as three separate and distinct individuals - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Throughout the ages, the church has tried to use language to express the relationships between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit that has maybe caused more confusion than clarity. We have said that the Son was "begotten, not made." We have said that the Spirit is "generated" from the Father and/or the Son. No wonder people have been left scratching their heads wondering what the practical importance of all of this heady stuff is.

I am not opposed to the theological discussions of the trinity. In fact, I really enjoy them. I think that the fruit of discussion, theological precision, would do the church some good. However, I think there are things that we can affirm about the threeness of God that makes the doctrine of the trinity much more assessable. That is where Grenz's second two counterbalanced statements come into play.

God is unity. The Divine Community is unified in essence. There are certain things that set God apart as God, making him God rather than merely a force or energy or figment of our imaginations. Whatever it is that makes God God, each member of the trinity equally shares it. Here are some things that come to mind for me:

- Eternality - The Divine Community has always been, always is, and always will be.
- Sovereignty - The Divine Community exercises supreme influence over all that he has made.
- Omnipotence - The Divine Community has the power to do anything within the scope of his divine purpose and character.
- Omniscience - The Divine Community possesses complete wisdom and insight in all things.

The Divine Community is also unified in purpose. I love some church statements of faith which talk about the "harmonious working of God." The members of the trinity are on the same team and playing the same sport. They are not in competition with each other, but rather are working together to accomplish the divine desire, whether that be in creation, salvation, or revelation.

On a very controversial side note, this is where Calvinists find support for the L in TULIP, limited atonement. It seems inconsistent to them that God the Son would be out of lockstep with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. The U in TULIP speaks of God the Father's unconditional election of those who would be redeemed. The I in TULIP speaks of God the Spirit's irresistible grace in granting new and spiritual life to those who have been elected by the Father. Since God is unified in purpose, why wouldn't the Son's atoning death on the cross not be limited as being applicable to those whom the Father has elected and the Spirit will regenerate? This line of reasoning may not resonate with you, but it does with many who are inclined to see the world through a Calvinistic lens.

Furthermore, the Divine Community is unified in character. Anything you say about God, you must say about all three members of the trinity. Have you ever heard someone describe the wrathful God of the Old Testament (the Father) and the loving Jesus of the New Testament? When we set members of the Divine Community up against one another in a false dichotomy, we violate the unity that is God. If God is holy, then the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all holy. If God is merciful, then the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all merciful. If God is just, then the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all just. The members of the trinity are unified in the divine character.

God is diversity. Each member of the trinity is playing the same game on the same team, but each has a different position. The roles or functions of each member of the trinity should not be thought of as modes. It is not that God was in the form or mode of Jesus during his lifetime and that he is in the form or mode of the Spirit now. Such a statement would diminish the threeness of the one who is God. Rather, the Father, Son and Spirit are all always working in distinct but harmonious ways. John Piper has made the helpful statement that God is one and three, at the same time but not in the same way.

In the story of the Bible, a pattern emerges in how God acts. The Father activates. The Son accomplishes. And the Spirit animates. Take creation as an example. It was the Father who initiated creation, activating the process that brought about all that is. He did this through the word, a biblical designation for the Son. It was the Word who brought all things into existence, accomplishing creation. But that is not all. The Spirit was present, hovering over the waters, rustling them. And it was the Spirit who was the breath of life in Adam's lungs. The Spirit brings life and motion to that which God has made, animating creation. God is unified in essence, purpose, and character while also being diverse in function or role.

God is one. God is three.
God is unity. God is diversity.


Anonymous said...

I think it is noteworthy that each Member of the Triunity seeks to honor the Others. In this the True God is distinct for His unselfishness - He seeks glory not for Himself in His individuality (as we might, being singular beings) but rather He seeks glory within His plurality.

Much of your post relates to this, and especially the final few paragraphs related to diversity. The harmony and self-giving within the Triunity has captured my attention lately for several reasons - certainly as it demonstrates how we as image bearers should relate within our closest relationships.


corexian said...

I may get you to explain more about the TULIP; first I've heard of it and I like to know as much as I can about concepts before making a call on them. I've always been interested in trinity discussions as well. So basic and yet so unfathomable.

Robb said...


TULIP is the simplistic basis of 5-point Calvinism. It stands for:

Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints

It is one of my favorite topics, so let's talk about it anytime.

Your statement, "So basic and yet so unfathomable" is perfect!