In the previous articles in this series, we’ve put forth the premise that because the Christian faith is relational before it is doctrinal, it makes sense to frame the gospel relationally. Knowing God really is what it’s all about, and yet the gospel is most often framed from the starting point of “what is wrong with me and how does God fix it?” An important question to be sure, but we are on a quest to explore what it might look like to start the gospel with who God is, not what is wrong with ourselves. This brings us to a critical question: who is this God that we can know? It is a simple question, but the answer is anything but.
It turns out that the Bible says a lot of things about who God is, and reconciling them all together is the tricky part. For example, is God Jesus? Yes, the New Testament clearly attests to that. But is God also not Jesus? Well, it would seem this is necessary for Jesus to be praying to God; something he clearly does frequently. So…God is, but is not Jesus? Yep. Welcome to the Trinity.
The trinity is a head-scratching doctrine; when we first encounter it, it feels a bit like one of those philosophical conundrums. God is somehow one and three at the same time. Specifically, the trinity asserts that what the Bible says about God is this:
- There is one God
- That God exists in three persons called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- These three persons are coeternal and consubstantial. That is, they share the same nature as one another. They are of the same kind of “God-ness”, not different kinds of beings like God and humans. (They are the same “what”)
- Nevertheless, these three persons are distinct from one another. They are separate beings. (They are different “whos”)
In other words, God is simultaneously three WHOs and one WHAT. Is that mysterious and confusing? Absolutely, but perhaps it’s not a realistic expectation for us to be able to comprehend God well with our finite human minds in the first place.
Notice that there are two key ideas that the Trinity asserts are not true: modalism, the belief that there is one God who dresses up as Father, Son, and Spirit depending on the context. (One God who manifests in three modes, but it is the same one God showing up wearing three different outfits). To modalism, the trinity responds, “No, Father, Son, and Spirit are indeed three different persons: they are not equal to one another.
The second (and less common these days) idea the trinity refutes is tritheism: the belief that there are three separate Gods named Father, Son, and Spirit. The Trinity says that while there are three separate persons in the godhead, there are not three separate Gods. Father, Son, and Spirit are of one essence and united in purpose and activity. One cannot divide them apart from one another in any meaningful way because they all are of the same God-essence.
A careful review of the Scriptural evidence of this doctrine is beyond the scope of this article, but I found this overview by the Bible Project to be well worth the eight minutes it takes to watch it:
Confusing as this doctrine may be, this is one of the cornerstones of Christian teaching, indeed a substantial portion of the Church asserts that believing something outside the Trinitarian doctrine is heretical. (It turns out that no one believes they themselves believe a heresy, so there is no universal agreement by everyone who calls themselves a Christian).
What does this all mean for knowing God? Well, it means that to some degree, we have three distinct relationships with the one God. God is one in essence (one WHAT) and three in person (three WHOs), so interacting with God does involve relating to three different persons.
We may not be used to thinking this way, but if you take a minute and consider: how well do you know Jesus? The Father? The Holy Spirit? Turning that over likely makes clear that relationally we do not know them all equally. When I first started attending a Vineyard church, I learned that while I knew Jesus well, I didn’t know the Holy Spirit very well at all! Jesus (God the Son) I felt very comfortable relating to, but I hardly knew God the Spirit at all – he felt mysterious & confusing to me. It took me a long time to begin to build a relationship with the Holy Spirit as well, and now that I have it is even more clear to me that knowing God the Spirit is distinct from knowing God the Son.
Hold on: God is three-in-one, right? Don’t we only have one relationship with God? Well…yes, again sort of. I believe what we really have are two different kinds of relationships happening. We have one relationship with God as WHAT and three relationships with God as WHO. I believe our relationship with God as WHAT is kind of a role-based, functional kind of relationship. It is the relationship between ourselves and the essence of God, not the persons of God, and as such, it works differently than our relationships with the persons of God. Perhaps a good example of this would be the relationship you may have with a government, or with a corporation. Both of these are WHATs that you have relationship with, and relationships with a WHAT tend to be categorical in nature: we are a citizen (or not) of our government, we are an employee, or perhaps a customer of a corporation. These are different roles that we take with respect to the various WHATs we are talking about. In the same way, we have a role-based relationship with God, which is essentially that we are either aligned with him, or we are not. We are either in Adam or in Christ, of the world or of God. This is the role relationship we have with God, our singular relationship with God as WHAT.
But alongside these, we have three relationships with God as WHO, personal histories, and personal relationships with Father, Son, and Spirit, and what I have discovered is that to live the Christian life well, we need relationship with all three of them. Whichever member of the Godhead we know least is going to set the ceiling for our Christian journey. Everything of us is meant to walk in relationship with God, and wherever we are experiencing that disconnection, we find ourselves lacking what we are made to experience.
What all of this means is this: if the gospel is ultimately about knowing God, and if knowing God means experiencing this three-in-one relationship, then the good news should also follow the same three-in-one pattern. The gospel itself is three-in-one because it describes walking with a three-in-one God. (The way I could make this more rigorous in a philosophical or mathematical sense for those interested, is that I am arguing that the gospel is isomorphic to the godhead – the gospel is the same shape as God).
With this established, the next relevant question is this: what relationships do we have with Father, Son, and Spirit? What does it mean to know them? Unpacking this gets to the heart of the Triune Gospel, which we turn do next.
Appendix: Where did the Trinity Doctrine Come From?
The story of the doctrine of the Trinity is a fascinating one. This way of thinking about God was codified in the 300’s as a way of establishing clarity in the presence of other deviating (read ‘heretical’) viewpoints. Specifically, there was a teaching called Arianism which taught that Jesus was not as divine as God was. He was a god, but he was a created being and not co-eternal with the God of the Hebrew Bible. Arius (after which the teaching is named) espoused that Jesus was a kind of secondary deity, not equal in nature to his Father. As this teaching began to spread, it forced an important question: what exactly did believers believe about Jesus. Was he a secondary god, or was he made from the same “godness” at the being he referred to as “his Father”? This resulted in a lot of conversation, which was brought to closure at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The key conclusion that was reached is that Jesus is consubstantial (made of the same God-stuff, one in essence) with the Father. He is not a lower-level deity, he is as much God as the Father is.
One brief aside here: it’s interesting to observe that Arius was an excellent debater and was arguing his points from Scripture as well. What he was laying forth was coherent and reasonable, if anything at the time, the looser, Jesus is-but-isnt God stance is the more mysterious and harder-to-argue-from-logic one. I find it very cool the early church landed on a stance that was (1) more mysterious and harder to explain, but also (2) more glorifying to Jesus. May that order of priorities always be the case for the church.
Once the Christological question was resolved, the conversation began to turn to the Holy Spirit. Who precisely was he? How did he relate to the Father & Son, who were established as both fully God? This topic was the subject of another fifty-some years of debate until the matter was put to rest at the First Council of Constantinople in 381. The result of these councils was the infamous Nicene Creed. Notice these portions of the creed, specifically designed to clarify the doctrine of the Trinity:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father…
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
An interesting video that explores these church councils and the geopolitical context of the Roman Empire (from Khan Academy):
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Putty Putman