JM Smith: Explain the Trinity…and make it quick!!
Guest blog by James-Michael Smith, who describes himself as a martial artist/artist/bible-geek, blogs at The Disciple Dojo. JM is a preacher’s kid and a long time student of the Bible and theology. He studied at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and attends Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he served for 5 years on staff overseeing all adult Discipleship, Teaching and Small Group ministries. He is now looking toward Ph.D studies. Here is a more complete bio: About Discipleship Dojo.
He has a number of books, and DVD curriculum, and even free resources here: Discipleship Dojo Resources. Please check these out: they may be just the kind of teaching materials you’ve been looking for.
I was reading a discussion thread in an off-topic section of a Mixed Martial Arts website titled “explain the Trinity to me, I don’t get it”…yes MMA fans are capable of discussing more than why Kimbo could beat Brock, why t-shirts with skulls are not as cool as t-shirts with foil chains, or what the best fragrance of Axe Body Spray really is. Occasionally, you come across fairly rational discussions and on this thread a person named “Coffee Guy” posted the following:
so God made his Son a God? Doesn’t they defy the rule that Christianity is monotheistic in nature? What if God just started making more Gods? How did God know his son was going to use his power for good (he is human after all)? Did/Does God have superior God skills over Jesus? How does the Holy Spirit play into all this?
These are fair questions, but they contain a number of hidden assumptions. As I read through the various responses from people trying to explain the Trinity as well as the critics flippantly bashing the entire idea as completely silly, on par with discussions of who would win between Superman and Batman, the thing I was most struck by is the assumption on both sides that the Trinity is something that SHOULD be able to be neatly and precisely explained…in a single post, preferably!
It made me think about light.
Yeah, light. The stuff that is all around you. The stuff that streams through the cosmos at the absolute physical limit of speed (that’s 186,282 miles per second for the scientifically-illiterate reader).
Why does the Trinity make me think about light?
Well, because with the rise of modern physics in the last century, light became for many people quite…weird.
You see, many people had assumed light was made up of tiny little particles (later named “photons”) which shot across space at…well…at the speed of light! These fast little pellets of energy zoomed through the universe at a measurable speed. No big deal.
But…an experiment called the “Double-slit experiment” or “Young’s experiment” changed all that.
Rather than having a martial artist/artist/bible-geek who only reads science as a curious layperson explain it to you, let me let Dr. Quantum explain it with sweet visuals!
(If we’d had videos like that when I was in school, I might have become a scientist after all!)
So the result was that light was now seen as a particle…but also as a wave…somehow!
Now particles and waves are FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT CATEGORIES OF BEING. There is nothing in the known universe that is both particle AND wave…
…except for light.
Any attempt to offer an analogy to how light can be both particle-like and wave-like in its properties will break down at some point.
Furthermore, explaining HOW light can be both particle-like and wave-like in exact precise detail is something that takes the highest trained physicist entire textbooks worth of writing and equations to do…and is almost always inexplicable to the average person on the street.
We usually don’t require physicists to explain the wave-particle duality of light in a single post of an online forum. Nor do we smugly or flippantly dismiss them if they cannot.
Likewise, physicists don’t usually get annoyed at people with no physics or mathematics training when their attempts to explain light’s dual nature aren’t understood and immediately accepted (at least, the GOOD ones don’t! There are always stuck up physicists with no social skills who berate the plebeian ignoramus who dares question them…but they’re generally disdained by level-headed colleagues! For an example of this in action, see Neil deGrasse Tyson’s classic rebuke of Richard Dawkins).
Most people realize intuitively that the essence of light itself SHOULD be something that is hard, if not impossible, to fully grasp, much less explain simply.
So why do we expect to be able to do such when it comes the the very source of all light, God Himself??
“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” — 1 John 1:5
Of course many Christians, particularly clergy and teachers who did not know how to adequately answer honest skeptics have used the “it’s a mystery” and “just believe!” response as a means of avoiding discussion of the Trinity altogether. But all this does is create more suspicion and doubt in the hearts and minds of those who are met with such a response!
It is foolish…I would even suggest sinful…to respond to honest questions about the nature of God by telling the questioner to “just believe.” There’s a REASON the early Church wrestled for CENTURIES to find the right words to express the nature of God’s being as triune. And they still fell short!
Like light’s wave-particle duality, the Trinity cannot be explained adequately by analogy. If the Trinity is true, then there ARE no analogies for it!
EVERY attempt to explain the Trinity through object lessons or analogies ends up devolving into heresy…albeit well-intentioned heresy.
The Ice/Water/Steam analogy? Modalist heresy.
The Shell/White/Yolk of an egg analogy? Tri-theism heresy.
The Shamrock analogy? Same as above.
All illustrations of the Trinity are inadequate…but this does not negate the validity of God’s nature as triune anymoreso than pop-explanation failures to analogize negate the wave-particle duality of light.
So what should we do? How can we understand and communicate the Trinity in a way that is not heretical, overly-simplistic or misleading?
Firstly, I would say that we should stop using the “Doctrine of the Trinity” as an authority we appeal to. Just because God’s nature IS three-in-one doesn’t mean the “Doctrine” formulated by Patristic theologians to explain it are themselves sacred or authoritative.
Many people are under the assumption that a Church Council (usually Nicea is the supposed culprit) “invented” the Trinity–or as is more often the charge of DaVinci-Code-level “historians,” they “borrowed” it from pagan myths–and then simply declared it to be Church Doctrine.
This is not the case!
From the very beginning, Jesus’ earliest followers declared two truths with total conviction (even being willing to die for it!):
- There is only ONE God who could be worshiped and prayed to–YHWH the God of Israel.
- Jesus of Nazareth was to be worshiped and prayed to.
This was the wave-particle duality of Scripture’s witness to the nature of God.
Could it be easily or quickly explained? No.
Did everyone immediately accept and believe it? No.
But it what became the Doctrine of the Trinity was the result of nearly 3 centuries of wrestling with these two unavoidable truths, both taught in the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament. To let go of either was to reject a portion of Scripture in favor of another portion of Scripture…something Jesus Himself as well as His Inspired Apostles saw no need to do.
Likewise, for those who believe in the Gospel of Jesus, who was the embodiment of God’s very Word (John 1:1), it is impossible to reject either of these two truths. There is only ONE God. Yet Jesus IS SOMEHOW ONE with God. (Note: I’m leaving out, for now, discussion of the Holy Spirit as the 3rd “personae” of the Trinity for now because it was the final aspect of the Doctrine to be formulated and is an outflowing of the concept that Jesus was somehow one with, yet also distinct from, God the Father.)
Can a skeptic understand this? Possibly.
Should we expect a skeptic to accept it? Probably not.
Should we get annoyed or upset when a skeptic ridicules what they think the Trinity teaches? Definitely not (unless they are being disingenuous and not really seeking to understand the Christian faith…which is often the case!)
For what it’s worth, I reject the classical “top-down” approach when discussing the Trinity, and opt for a more organic “bottom-up” approach. The former starts with the doctrine of the Trinity and tries to explain the Biblical texts in light of it. This is fine for those who already accept the doctrine. But I prefer the latter method, which seeks to explain the Biblical texts and how they led to the formulation of the doctrine as people wrestled with their implications regarding the nature and identity of Jesus in a monotheistic Hebrew context. You can read my own attempts to touch on this concept of “Trinity” and how it arose at:
God or Jesus — Who Do Christians Pray To?
How Can God Be Merciful and Just at the Same Time?
But at the end of the day, we MUST realize that we are not solving equations, we are discussing the very nature of God Almighty! Should we EXPECT to be able to fully and easily comprehend His inward essence??
We can’t even fully grasp the implications of the nature of light…how much less should we expect to be able to comprehend the nature of the One who spoke light itself into existence?
P.S.: For those interested in further study of the Trinity, the best resources I’ve ever read on the subject are the following:
Michael Brown – Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 2: Theological Objections
Alister McGrath – Understanding the Trinity
Richard Bauckham – God Crucified
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