The Trinity today
Garry Williams, MA, MSt, PhD
In last month’s article I suggested that Christians face increasing questioning and even hostility in at least two areas, and I outlined the first – a challenge to the Bible’s morality. The second concerns the doctrine of the Trinity.
Unlike the challenge to the Bible, the challenge to the doctrine of the Trinity comes from religious rather than secular strands in our culture. We could face its denial from, among others, Jewish or Muslim neighbours, friends and colleagues, or visiting Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The denials are quite distinct. For the Jews it comes with the denial of Jesus as the Messiah. For Muslims the Trinity is rejected because of their emphasis on the undifferentiated oneness of God.
It is striking that the Qur’an (5:116) seems to identify the trinity that it rejects as the Father, the Son and Mary. This is suggestive: was Mohammed’s rejection of Christianity caused in part by the misleading way in which the Christian faith was represented to him?
I do not mean that this was all there was to his rejection, but it may have been a part of it. This reminds us of the importance of representing the biblical teaching on the Trinity with great care.
If, for example, we give the impression that we believe in three gods, or that the Father had a child in the Son as men have children, then we are inviting trouble.
For Jehovah’s Witnesses there is a professed acceptance of the Bible, but an accompanying claim that the Bible does not teach the Trinity. Here we will need to be on our toes exegetically.
These considerations remind us how important the doctrine of the Trinity is. Quite a lot is said about ‘the three great Abrahamic religions’ and the way that they agree in their monotheism. This is often an attempt to find a theological basis for social cohesion, since if it is possible to identify common theological ground between Christians, Jews and Muslims then it might be easier to address any social tensions between them.
The doctrine of God is thought to provide such ground since all can agree on a simple affirmation that ‘there is one God’. However, the doctrine of the Trinity shows us that this approach is entirely wrong.
The one God in whom we believe is not the same as the one God of Islam or even Judaism (though he is the one God of the Old Testament). There must indeed be a basis for peaceful neighbourly living, but it is not to be found in denying theological differences.
The distinctiveness of the doctrine of the Trinity shows us why any lack of Trinitarian preaching and teaching in our churches is very serious. If we are not proclaiming the Trinity, then we are not proclaiming the Son as the Bible describes him.
And if we are not proclaiming the Son as the Bible describes him, then we are not proclaiming the Father as the Bible describes him, since he is the Father of this Son. We are, to put it simply, not preaching God or his gospel.
The Trinity is not some exotic or esoteric extra that we can let go quietly. It is the defining feature of the Christian doctrine of God. Our emphasis on it must be pervasive.
How then should the doctrine be understood and presented? I suspect the reason it is taught so rarely is that we fear it is too hard to teach and learn. This is understandable, since any textbook of doctrine is littered with difficult-looking technical terms related to it.
Who can hope to find a way through the thickets of perichoresis, substantia, essentia, and hypostasis? Really though, it is not complicated in its elements.
Many of the complexities arise when we attempt to explain the how of the Trinity. The what of it is, in its outline at least, simple. It can be expressed in four statements – the Father is God; the Son is God; the Holy Spirit is God; and there is one God.
Each of these statements can be demonstrated from a range of biblical passages. It would be well to go to a systematic theology to study them. It would be best not to rely on the obvious passages, to which an able unitarian apologist (of whatever sort) will already have prepared a ready (even if flawed) answer.
So perhaps, rather than John 1, we might turn to the many passages where texts exclusively describing God in the Old Testament are applied to the Lord Jesus (e.g. Isaiah 45:23 and Philippians 2:10-11). Or go to texts where Jesus is worshipped in a context where the worship is question is more than just giving honour to a respected teacher (e.g. Hebrews 1:6).
When we have these details under our belts, it might be time to explore some of the more subtle aspects of the how of the doctrine. But our first responsibility is simply to be ready to give an answer that represents the basic facts clearly.
The author is director of the John Owen Centre, at the London Theological Seminary