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Defending Trinitarian Christianity

And the catholic faith is this:  That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity. . .
—The Athanasian Creed (c. AD 500)

The entire Christian belief system, all of special revelation, stands or falls with the confession of God’s Trinity.
—Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (2003)

God in Three Persons

“Only Christianity harmonizes unity and diversity.”

It was liberal theologian Karl Barth who said that Trinity is another word for God.  On this occasion, he was right.  But long before him, John Calvin had written this:

While he proclaims his unity, he distinctly sets it before us as existing in three persons.  These we must hold unless the bare and empty name of Deity merely is a flutter in our brain without any genuine knowledge.

“A flutter in our brains,” Calvin says. Calvin understood quite rightly that the doctrine of the Trinity stands at the very heart of the Christian worldview. It also stands at the very center of the Christian apologetic endeavor.  After all, if the God we presuppose, proclaim, and defend is Triune, how can we talk about Him at any length without taking His “tri-unity” into consideration?

And yet there is an amazing absence of the word Trinity in many otherwise sound books on apologetics.  In fact, some very strong Trinitarians through the years seem to pass right over the doctrine.  One writer, for example, finds the chief difference between the Christian God and the gods of other religions in the “holiness” aspect of the Christian God. And, while it’s true that only Christianity has a truly transcendent starting point for ethics, other religions do deal with moral “advice” and seemingly pragmatic aphorisms for better living. It’s just that other religions offer only suggestions with no real authority, no justice and no concept of forgiveness that was written from the mind of the Creator.  A few religions have played with the idea of holiness. But again, they usually ascribe a sense of holiness that imitates the God of Scripture.  But no pagan religious system or modern cult has ever pretended a belief in the Trinity.  “Triads” aplenty, but nowhere near biblical Trinitarianism.

Philosophers have done no better.  From Aristotle to Hegel, the philosophers have fashioned many gods and assigned to them imminently reasonable attributes like unity, benevolence, justice, and so on … but no philosopher has postulated the biblical doctrine of the Trinity without the help of the Bible itself.  I guess this is because the Trinity is a mystery in the biblical sense.  It is something that God Himself must reveal to us through His word if we are to know it. And of course, it’s something we receive by faith.

The Decline of the Trinitarian Worldview (Honey, I Shrunk Our God)
The current de-emphasis of the Trinity is nothing new, after all.  Trinitarianism has been in decline in the West for at least three centuries.  The decent began when Newtonian mechanics replaced Triune providence in the imagination of scientists and philosophers.  So powerful (at least on first blush) was Newton’s mathematical construction of the Universe at the time, that it seemed beyond the reach of God Himself.  So the Triune Creator becomes the Divine Geometer, Watchmaker or the Great Architect of the Universe.  In this view, God gets reduced to what a mathematician could understand.  A perspective that says “God is just like me, a mathematician at heart, only with more hard drive space and a faster processor”.

Though America escaped the full brunt of Enlightenment thought, there were those who embraced its premises.  I always think of Thomas Jefferson and his “cut-and-paste” life of Christ or of Benjamin Franklin and his Mormonesque theory of multiple worlds.  Of course, these men were hardly typical of the American mindset at the time, but on a broader and subtler level, kind of like a slow, silent, spreading infection.

Consider this:  Most of our Founding Fathers were Trinitarian.  At least, they were members of Bible-believing, Trinitarian churches.  In their choice of words, however, they sounded, more often than not, like Unitarians and Deists.  They spoke of Heaven, of Divine Providence, or of Nature’s God.  Very rarely does the word Trinity or the name of Jesus break into their writings.  In the whole Constitutional debate, for example, one would be hard-pressed to find any reference to the Triune God or any appeal to the crown rights of Jesus Christ in politics.

Even Noah Webster in his 1828 Dictionary was able to define God without reference to the Trinity or Jesus Christ, though he does make use of the name Jehovah.   Under the entry “Son,” he says that Christ is called the Son of God either “as being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, or in consequence of his relation to the Father.”  What precisely that relation is, he does not say.  Meanwhile, New England’s Congregational churches slip quietly into Unitarianism.

In the wake of the Second Awakening, a growing secular influence continued to weaken Trinitarianism in the United States. That’s because secular ideas of free-will and Unitarianism have a similar foundation.  They both grew out of rationalism, from the need to make God understandable as well as appealing.  Because of this, they both have a penchant for demystification and oversimplification.  Secular, free-will Christianity confesses the doctrine of the Trinity but tends to reserve the name “God” for the Father and the title “Savior” for the Son.  As a result, they often seem to speak of the Father as if He were the only God in charge, of the Son as the merely a junior god in training, and of the Spirit as mystical energy available for harnessing.

Today the American church faces pantheism on the one side and Unitarian Islam on the other.  Both religions speak of the unity of the Godhead.  Neither is talking about the God of Scripture.  The pantheistic god is an all-encompassing and undifferentiated oneness.  A cold universe, silent and meaningless.  The Islamic god is “sentient omnipotence,” a god incapable of love or even self-revelation. Unfortunately, we live at a time when both Pantheism and Islam have greater cultural momentum than the old Triune model that built American Colonial culture.
The Trinitarian Worldview
So, what does a Trinitarian worldview look like?  How should our belief in the Triune God affect our understanding of the world as well as our defense of the faith?

1.    First, the doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of the Christian life. In the beginning was love.  In the beginning were fellowship and communication. In the beginning was the covenant. The life we call Christianity began in the eternal fellowship of the Persons of the holy Trinity.  They loved and communicated and made promises and rejoiced.  Now God desires to bring us, His creatures, into that fellowship … not as equals, but as children; not by mystical absorption, but by covenant blood.  The Father predestines; the Son redeems; the Spirit sanctifies.  The Triune God saves us, embraces us, and indwells us (John 14:15-24).  Note the word us.  It’s important because even though we come to Christ as individuals, we do not come individualistically (Schaeffer, 54).  The Triune God engrafts us all into Christ (Rom. 6).  He makes us members, organs, of Christ’s own Body, and thus members of one another. We are surrounded, engulfed, by personality and personal interaction.  When we lose this Trinitarian perspective, covenant theology takes on all the character, warmth and excitement of one of Stalin’s 5-year plans.

2.    Second, the biblical doctrine of the Trinity answers the problem of the One and the Many.  In the Triune God, unity and diversity are equally ultimate.  God is both three and one, as well as eternal.  Form and freedom, law and liberty, individual fact and overarching meaning, are all essential to God’s plan and purpose.  The good news here is that Trinitarian Christianity escapes the epistemological war between universals and particulars.  It also eliminates the political problem of tyranny versus anarchy.  God’s written word gives us the truth which means both facts and principles of the world we live in.  Trinitarianism draws boundary lines between unity and diversity for our primary social institutions … family, church, and State.

3.    Third, the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that some things are beyond our understanding.  We believe the doctrine of the Trinity because the Bible tells us so, not because we can deduce it rationally or plumb its depths.  Christian apologists need to consider Warfield’s observations on this point:

As the doctrine of the Trinity is indiscoverable by reason, so it is incapable of proof from reason.  There are no analogies to it in Nature, not even in the spiritual nature of man, who is made in the image of God.  In his Trinitarian mode of being, God is unique; and, as there is nothing in the universe like Him in this respect, so there is nothing which can help us to comprehend Him (23-24).

To explain the Trinity, and in doing so the whole of the Christian worldview, we have to use our Bibles for direction and application.  Apologetics necessarily involves speaking from Scripture.  On the other hand, there is nothing in creation that is at odds with the doctrine of the Trinity.  As Cornelius Van Til points out:

“This world is made by God and, therefore, to the extent that it is capable of doing so, it may be thought of as revealing God as he exists.  And God exists as a triune being.”

The whole universe is necessarily consistent with the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, the entire universe dances with Trinitarian rhythms.

Trinitarianism lies at the very heart of our Christian faith.  And there’s never been a better time to recognize this than 2018.  As a first step, we all need to change the way we talk about God because the way we talk about God is the way we will think about Him. We should use the word, Trinity. We should call Jesus Christ “God” and speak freely of the divine and sovereign Spirit.  We should talk about God as Scripture speaks of God.

Then we should relearn the ancient creeds of the Church and prefer their vocabulary to the compromised vocabulary of American civil religion and Arminian evangelicalism.  Phrases like “God of God,” “of one essence with the Father,” and “One God in Trinity, and Trinity and Unity” should spring quickly to our lips.

And finally, all of us need to study harder. We need to work through the passages of Scripture (like Christ’s farewell discourse) that underscore and develop the relationships among the Persons of the Trinity.  We need to break open the older commentaries and the classic works on systematics and start getting thirsty for the Triune God.  Only then can we begin to do justice to the real worldview of Scripture. Only then can we defend Scripture correctly, and only then can we answer the question … How then Shall We Live?

For Further Reading
Berkhof, Louis.  The History of Christian Doctrines.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1937.
Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion.  2 vols. Trans. Henry Beveridge.  Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970.
Lewis, C. S. “Membership,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses.  New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1980.
Rushdoony, Rousas J.  The One and the Many, Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy.  N. p.: Craig Press, 1971.
Schaeffer, Francis A.  The Church at the End of the 20th Century.  Downers Grove:  Inter-Varsity Press, 1970.
Van Til, Cornelius.  An Introduction to Systematic Theology.  N. p.:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1974.
Warfield, Benjamin B. “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Biblical and Theological Studies.  Philadelphia:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1968.

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