By Dr. Hal Knight, Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan Studies, Saint Paul School of Theology
Article I: Of Faith in the Holy Trinity (Articles of Religion)
Article I: God (Confession of Faith)
If there is one doctrine that is foundational to Christianity it is the doctrine of the Trinity. Both the United Methodist Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith begin with the insistence that God is triune.
Yet if there is one teaching that is a stumbling block to the faithful and a scandal to everyone else the Trinity is the prime candidate. It just doesn’t make sense, people say, that one God can be three persons. They would happily believe it if only we can explain it; they would gladly have faith in a triune God is only they could understand it.
John Wesley argued that asking how three persons could be one God is the wrong question. “I believe… that God is Three in One,” he said in “On the Trinity,” “But the manner I do not comprehend….” The real question was not how God is triune but what difference it makes. Why is it, as Wesley insists, that the doctrine of the Trinity is not “a point of indifference” but “a truth of last importance” that “enters into the very heart of Christianity” and “lies at the root of all vital religion?”
One reason is the Trinity is necessary to rightly understand the revelation of God in scripture. It attests to the divinity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit without falling into tritheism. When Jesus says in John 10:30 “I and the Father are one” yet also says in John 10:36 he was sent by the Father, he is claiming equality and unity with, and distinction from, the Father all at once. Paul in Colossians states that all things were created through Christ (1:16), the fullness of God dwells in him (1:19), and in Christ the fullness of deity dwells bodily ((2:9). Throughout all the gospels Jesus does things only God can do, and claims authority that belongs to God alone, all the time continuing to pray to the Father.
To cite another example, in John 14 Jesus says to see him is to see the Father, yet he is going to the Father; moreover he promises the Father will send another advocate like himself, the Holy Spirit. What are we to make of these claims of divine diversity and oneness? What are we to make of the practice of early Christians to ascribe worship to all three even as they insisted there is one God alone? The doctrine of the Trinity provides the parameters for our faithfully speaking about and to God.
A second contribution of the doctrine of the Trinity is that it says something about the nature of God. To say God is triune is to say God is essentially a relationship of love. We rightly speak of the Trinity as three persons, but only if we do not understand “person” as an autonomous individual. The three persons are constituted by their relationship with one another, and are one God through their mutually indwelling one another.
Thus we do not say the Father, Son, and Spirit are three “parts” of God for that denies their interpersonal relationality. Nor do we speak of three “sides” of God for that denies their distinctiveness. Nor do we call them three “members” of God for that denies their unity.
Frequently I have encountered the language of “God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.” This is especially unhelpful as it echoes the Arian heresy that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were the highest of created beings, but different in kind from the God who created them. The Arian assumption is that divinity would be compromised by entering our world of finitude and change, hence God created Christ and the Spirit as non-divine agents to be involved in history. The doctrine of the Trinity denies this aloof deity and instead says God actually enters our history in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
This points to the third contribution of the doctrine of the Trinity: only a God who enters our world can love us, save us, and change us. This the Triune God does in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Therefore Charles Wesley can write “O Love Divine, what has Thou done? The immortal God hath died for me.” Therefore we can joyfully proclaim Jesus as Savior and Lord. Therefore our hearts and lives can be transformed by the Holy Spirit who dwells within, until we become, in Charles Wesley’s words, “transcripts of the Trinity,” loving God and others as we have been loved by God.