Trinity and Christian Life:

Andrew Trotter
Tuesday, May 15th 2007
Nov/Dec 2003
I believe in God, the Father Almighty … And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord …I believe in the Holy Ghost …

(The Apostles' Creed, ca. 4th-5th c.)

Since its earliest days, the church has discussed, fought over, debated, professed ignorance of, conducted heresy trials about, but always ultimately confessed, the Trinity, the classic expression-unique to Christianity-of God as simultaneously both unity and plurality. The doctrine of three persons in one essence was hammered out over long years of correspondence, councils, writing, and preaching. In the church's patristic period, many were excommunicated and branded as heretics because of their various departures from the orthodox form of this belief, and, during the Reformation, some even lost their lives for rejecting it.

In today's evangelical world, however, the doctrine of the Trinity often seems to be almost an add-on to "the things surely to be believed." Evangelicals do treat this belief as weighty and valuable, even as necessary for professing true Christianity. But outside the learned circles of theological seminaries, ordinary pew-sitters have no idea why this is so. Still less do they know what the practical consequences of faith in God as Triune are. The doctrine is respected more from an attitude that "we have always believed this" than from any understanding of what it actually asserts. Even more, thoughtful consideration of a life lived in relation to the triune God seems almost nonexistent.

As a result, practical mistakes abound in both our corporate worship and our individual devotional lives. Different groups of worshipers elevate one person of the Trinity over the others in different ways. Some positively denigrate the Father, rejecting reference to him at any point in their services, lest those who have had bad experiences of fatherhood obtain a mistaken view of him-at one Ivy League university, chapel speakers are told not to refer to God by any masculine personal pronoun. Some groups, following the powerful social currents of feminism, choose to refer to God as both our Father and our Mother, while others completely depersonalize the Trinity by talking about God as Life Force, thus ignoring the use of biblical language entirely.

Other groups simply want to elevate Jesus. But promoting "only Jesus" in worship is dangerously myopic and fails to exalt the Christian God in all his triune glory. Although focusing on Christ is perfectly appropriate at times in worship, whole portions of the history of God's work, due largely to the activity of the Father or the Spirit, are neglected if Christ is the sole focus. When this happens, the preaching, prayers, and hymns of worship become strangely weak and shallow.

Still others view the Holy Spirit as having been neglected for so long that they insist on promoting him and his work, adoring him before all else in every part of the service. This often involves depersonalization of a different sort, as the Spirit focused upon is not the third person in the Trinity at all, but an emotion-soother or a jazzy, contemporary Power that infuses worship with an energy differing little from the excitement felt at a really good college football game. While in college, I once encountered a priest I knew handing out balloons on Pentecost to any students he met. I asked him what his view of the Holy Spirit was. He answered, "Well, you see, it's kind of like school spirit. His job is to make us happy while we do God's work." Such is the state of understanding of the Trinity in Christian groups today.

In our individual devotional lives it is not much better. Here affinity with Jesus seems most prominent, although some in charismatic circles describe the Christian life almost entirely in terms of its being "Spirit-led." Evangelicals are strong on devotion to Christ as Lord, teaching that a disciple of the living God follows Jesus wherever he leads. Of course, this is right and good, but mention that discipleship also means that you are a soldier in the army of the Lord of hosts, or that you are a son and heir of the Father, or especially that you are a slave in the household of the Master, and you will often meet with looks ranging from complete incomprehension to active distaste. Claiming that the Spirit led you to make a decision can make people suspicious that you are wildly emotional in your views. In a different context, state that you pray only to the Father, and you may be thought to be in need of instruction about a personal relationship with Christ.

I cannot investigate here all the reasons the church has to recover a full-orbed understanding of the Trinity. But, after defining the doctrine very briefly and pointing out some of the primary implications of saying we believe in a triune God, I will then examine one crucial area where the church's mission would be greatly improved if she were, in everything she does, to work hard at honoring our God in all his triune fullness.

A Brief Statement of the Doctrine

The doctrine of the Trinity is not discussed directly in Scripture, but Scripture clearly teaches both the oneness of God in essence and the threeness of the persons in the Godhead. God's oneness is everywhere assumed, from the first commandment of the Decalogue to the picture of the great "I Am" in the book of Revelation, but perhaps nowhere so clearly as in the Jewish Shema (see Deut. 6:4-5). These verses, and those following, are still one of the most important prayers of the Jewish faith today, and were foundational to all the Jewish Christian authors of the New Testament, as well as to the Lord himself.

The plurality we confess in our God is clearly at work in two passages often called "The Great Commission" (Matt. 28:19-20) and "The Grace" (2 Cor. 13:14). Here the three persons of the Trinity are mentioned together equally while they are also clearly kept separate in accordance with the uniqueness of their persons within the Godhead.

In the Great Commission, Jesus instructs his disciples in their responsibility to go into all the world, proclaiming and implementing his good news. His followers are to baptize in the name-and the singular noun may be significant here-of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We may wonder how developed the Eleven's understanding of the Trinity was at this point, given this subtle and theologically rich statement where Jesus seems to be assuming so much on their parts. Of course, the idea that the apostles would have had any conception of the Trinity raises a guffaw from modern, critical scholarship, but there is no way to know what they were assuming as they preached and wrote. In their later communications, where there are several trinitarian hints and allusions (see, e.g., 1 Pet. 1:2), we have no reason to doubt that some notion of unity and plurality in God may have been present in their conception of him.

Similarly, Paul ends his second letter to the Corinthians with one of the most often-repeated benedictions in the history of the church, writing "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." Again, equality, unity, and diversity are evident in this declaration. In mentioning all three persons, Paul is probably playing off the simple promise of God's presence with them that he made in verse 11.

These three passages are not the only ones in the Bible supporting the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity, but they help us to see why orthodox Christian theologians have agreed throughout the ages that, though a clear statement of the doctrine of the Trinity is not found in any one place in Scripture, the Bible's entire picture of God cannot be understood apart from it. To put it in other words, the more we read Scripture, the more we should see the Trinity in its pages.

Simply defined, what is the doctrine? Perhaps the Westminster Shorter Catechism expresses it as well as can be in two simple questions and answers:

Question 5: Are there more Gods than one? Answer: There is but one only, the living and true God.Question 6: How many persons are there in the Godhead? Answer: There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.

Question 5 makes clear that Christianity is not polytheism and that our triune God is neither dead-as an idol or an abstraction would be-nor false in any sense of the word-as a confused human construction would be. Polytheism's challenge is met twice in this question, once when the question is directly asked and answered by the simple "There is but one," and again for good measure by the addition of the adverb "only" to reinforce the adjective "one." As if that were not enough, an elaboration of God's oneness is added to Question 6, declaring the three persons' sameness in substance and equality of power and glory.

Question 6 focuses on the Godhead's three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Larger Catechism and the Confession of Faith elaborate on the classic ideas of the eternal generation of the Son by the Father and the eternal procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son, but the Shorter Catechism perhaps rightly bypasses these. Although the generation and procession discussions are important ones, it is much more crucial that the Christian maintain the balance between God's unity and the Godhead's plurality. There are many reasons for this, but I will now emphasize one that is crucial in our twenty-first century context.

The Trinity Is Important to Good Evangelism

First-century Christians faced a mandate from their Lord to take the gospel to a world that had two very different conceptions of God. On the one hand, there were the Jews, who, as we have seen, believed passionately in one God who stands not simply above all other gods but is directly opposed to any who would even call themselves "god." Long before, through the prophet Isaiah, Yahweh treated the idols in the cultures surrounding Israel derisively, saying:

"You are my witnesses," declares the Lord, "and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses," declares the Lord, "and I am God. Also henceforth I am he; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?" (Isa. 43:10-13)

Nothing had changed by the first century. The Jews Philo and Josephus both scoffed at the polytheism surrounding them, and the Jewish Zealots continued the two-hundred-year-old war against the pagan rulers of Palestine-first Greeks, then Romans-who threatened to desecrate their temple and oppose their God.

On the other hand, the polytheism of the Greco-Roman populace in the cities of the Mediterranean basin is well-known. Whether one called him Zeus or Jupiter, the chief god was still merely the head of a pantheon of gods and, while monotheism of an abstract sort was popular among the Stoics and other intellectual philosophers of the day, these gods were strongly entrenched in Gentile hearts and minds. The story of Paul and Barnabas's journey to Lystra bears witness to this. Paul had healed a man who could not walk, and so the people immediately concluded that gods were visiting them, calling Paul Hermes and Barnabas Zeus. The priest of Zeus even wanted to offer oblations to the two (see Acts 14:8-13). Luke also tells us that when Paul was in Athens, "his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols" (Acts 17:16). This led him to challenge the Athenians with the gospel.

The city is still full of idols today, yet Christians too often do not recognize them for what they are and, even if we do, we often are not ready to challenge them as we should. Our challenging them depends on our recognizing that first-century tensions between monotheism and polytheism remain with us, but in radically different forms. Currently, religious challenges to Christianity in America come from religious pluralism-the polymorphous "spirituality" that is heir to the New Age movement-and from the radically monotheistic incursion of Islam. As in Paul's day, the only answer to the questions raised by both of these challengers is evangelism that is clear about the uniqueness of the triune God. Looking at one popular example of religious pluralism will show how trinitarian truth exposes its shallowness and inadequacy.

As I write, The Matrix Reloaded, which is the second of three movies in the Matrix series, has recently debuted. As you read, the third, The Matrix Revolutions, should have opened. Gregory Bassham correctly describes these movies' religious perspective as a "cafeteria pluralism"-"the view that religious truth lies in a mix of beliefs drawn from many different religions." Both movies so far are a mishmash of Christian symbol, Zen Buddhism, Taoism, humanism, deconstructionist philosophy, and ancient Gnosticism. Each of these, as is true of every religion or philosophy with any staying power, points to some sort of god, whether it acknowledges his existence or not. Even the so-called "ethical philosophies" of Zen Buddhism and humanism make, respectively, nothingness and man the measure of all things, and so worship them as idols. The picture of a "god" that emerges from a mixture of them all is bound to have inconsistencies that make a coherent life, built upon them, impossible.

But that has not stopped the Wachowski brothers, as the creators, writers, and directors of the entire Matrix series, from trying to paint such a picture. Through the characters of Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity (Does anyone need more proof of the significance of the doctrine of the Trinity than the use of this name for one of the main characters?) and Agent Smith and the Merovingian on the other side of whatever moral divide exists in the films, Andy and Larry Wachowski explore a number of crucial ideas that determine how we view our existence in the postmodern world. The Princeton philosopher Cornell West, who advises the brothers and has a small role in the second film, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that he and the Wachowski brothers "had bonded over 'wrestling with the meaning of life and the purpose of human existence.' They share an affinity for plucking ideas from religion, philosophy, pop music, television and movies, and synthesizing them into a prophetic, liberating message. They want to make the world a more philosophical place." Human freedom versus the determinism of the machines' computer programs, cause and effect, whether good exists if everything is simply virtual reality, the very nature of reality itself-all of these ideas are investigated as deeply as a movie is able to do such things.

But perhaps most striking is the picture of "deity" found in the character of Neo, played by Keanu Reeves. Neo is a messianic figure, with elements borrowed from the Bible's portrayal of the Son of God. He is regularly referred to as "the One" in the film-a figure, prophesied by "the Oracle," who will save humanity from destruction at the hand of the machines. Early in the first film, he is even called "my savior, my own personal Jesus Christ" by another character. Allusions to his messianic calling as the "savior of the world" fill that movie, especially through the strong plot line in which Neo dies, is resurrected, and even ascends at the end of the film, after delivering his message of hope to the world.

But Neo is a savior who doubts-perhaps even more so in the second film-that he is the savior at all. He wanders through the films constantly questioning his role in the battle against the machines. This doubt has religious overtones, as Neo sometimes debates with Morpheus and Trinity about whether or not he is the One. Sometimes Neo flatly denies that he is. Strikingly, and not accidentally, his name in the matrix is Thomas Anderson, combining the New Testament's figure of "doubting Thomas" with the title "son of man" as the meaning of Neo's last name. ("Ander" comes from the Greek root for the word "man." When combined with the English "son," one gets Anderson is the Son of Man.) This doubting messiah is borrowed from the early heresy of Gnosticism, where Jesus is regularly portrayed as "correcting" the disciples in their assumptions, claiming only to appear to be a man (the heresy of Docetism) or assuring them that they can be gods like him, if they will only enter the Gnostic world of "knowledge."

The pastiche that is Neo is not simply one of misused Christian symbols and early church heresies. Neo's learning in the first film that "there is no spoon" depends on the Buddha's teaching of the world as illusion. This idea deepens in the second film as Neo has doubt cast upon his very existence, outside virtual reality, by both the Oracle and the Architect. More subtly, in The Matrix the statement "there is no spoon" occurs within the matrix, a world everyone accepts as illusory, but in The Matrix Reloaded it is repeated as Neo receives the gift of a bent spoon in the "real" world of Zion. The humanistic portrayal of Neo as powerful, humanity-saving hero ("It is not the spoon that bends; it is only yourself" says the Potential in the Oracle's sitting room) and the deconstructive notion of truth as doubt, as well as the Taoist idea of the primacy of self-knowledge (a plaque in the Oracle's apartment reads "Know Thyself" in Latin)-all these are forced into one character, one notion of god, the savior, who is not a transcendent being but a human one.

Christians who grasp the doctrine of the Trinity will see these false ruminations for what they are: idols for destruction. The Christian understanding of the Trinity, as the lynchpin of our faith, holds the answers to all human questions in its profound tension between the many and the One, but a truncated Christianity, devoid of this complexity, can never meet the challenges of postmodern pluralism. The Wachowskis offer us a savior who is one and many at the same time. Constructed of bits of many religions, yet showing the true path, Neo is to be our deliverer. Many are buying their pluralistic fiction, some even trying to live as if we actually exist in a programmed matrix. Many more look for humankind's salvation through a god made up from all the religions. Although we will not know until the third film is released, there are indications that Neo will be converted into Everyman in the final film. If so, the final message will be that we are all able to "save ourselves." In that case, we could probably add the Hindu notion of pantheism to our list of sources for the film's religious stance.

If all a Christian can say to someone who believes in this kind of cafeteria pluralism is "believe Jesus," without being able to proclaim the truth as it really is found in our triune God, then, tragically, a generation of postmoderns will never know that Christianity involves an encounter with the God who, in his nature, solves the tension between the one and the many . . . and so much more.

Tuesday, May 15th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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