Of Faith in the Holy Trinity

By Dr. Hal Knight, Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan Studies, Saint Paul School of Theology 

rublev's trinity

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.

6 thoughts on “Of Faith in the Holy Trinity

  1. The trinity concept is impossible to understand by our tiny human minds. I try this by imagining three distinct “beings” with intellects, minds and knowledges in-tune but with the amount of access to this knowledge of EVERYTHING limited as controlled by God.

    Christ, while on earth, did not know the hour of His Father’s return but knew it would be God’s place to decide how long to extend His mercy for the generation living when Israel became a nation again. Jesus Christ, and those in Heaven, know today very much more closely {decades or years} but perhaps still not the season, month or hour till God’s Judgment. Everyone in Heaven realizes this decision must be left to God.

    I pray that Christ and the Spirit lead Lucifer to repent to God eventually. I find it impossible to wrap my mind around the God of the Trinity being able to send Jesus to make forgiving ME possible while I was still a sinner who might never repent. God forgave me or accepted Christ’s sacrifice for my sins and therefore can’t fail to forgive Lucifer if Lucifer repents. Lucifer still has free-will and there must be some chance Lucifer will repent though at the time of Jesus’ life it did not appear possible. God and Christ will never give up and have not given up on even Lucifer yet I pray.

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  2. I have to wonder; as Jesus Christ owes his divinity to Constitine’s declaration after Nicea, then it would follow that the Trinity also owes its “non-understandability” to that same group of people and that same declaration. Actually, if it weren’t for the Trinity’s ability to win battles for the Romans, they would have faded into the shadows of history, and we would all be Zorastorers.

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    • It’s often claimed that Christ’s divinity and the doctrine of the Trinity are inventions of Constantine and the fourth century, but this squares very poorly with the actual evidence. You can find quite sophisticated Trinitarian theology in the works of Origen (mid-third century), Tertullian (early third century) and Irenaeus (late second century). You can also find a pagan, Pliny the Younger, mentioning that Christians worship Christ as a god in the early 100s. This is all assuming that you won’t accept the New Testament as evidence, the oldest books of which (Paul’s letters) are some of the strongest on Christ’s divinity.

      Likewise, the best recent scholarship is revising the idea that Constantine’s reign marked a decisive point in the growth of Christianity. He was not the first emperor to act as a patron of Christianity, nor did he particularly take any steps to make Christianity the official religion of the empire. If you’re interested in learning more, I’d recommend Peter Brown’s recent book Through the Eye of the Needle.

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  3. The Trinity supports the identification of God´s essence with love: God IS love. Love requires personhood, freedom and relationship. The interpenetration of the three persons in perfect harmony serves as the model and goal for creation. God is the source of both unity and diversity.

    Also, the Trinity manifests that love is at the core of God’s creative purpose and mode of operation, and not sovereignty. Some theological systems place sovereignty above all, but this is a mistake. God’s sovereignty operates within the context of God’s love, which is the divine essence.

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