A while back I ran across a Christian magazine that I hadn’t read yet. Thumbing through it, I found an article titled “Adding Up the Trinity.” Amateur theologian that I am, that title caught my attention.
The article asked—and answered—one basic question: Of what practical value is the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, anyway? Is it just an abstract proposition for theologians to argue about, or can it actually provide some meaningful guidance for your everyday life and mine?
Let me take a moment to explain what Christians mean by “the Trinity,” and then I’ll share my response to that question with you.
What is the Trinity?
To begin with, the word Trinity does not appear in the Bible. The idea of the Trinity shows up very clearly in the Bible, but because the Bible does not give this idea a name, theologians have chosen to call it “the Trinity.”
The simplest way to state what the Trinity means is to say that the “Godhead” is made up of Three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. However, this poses a problem, because Christians, like Jews and Muslims, claim to be monotheists— that is, we claim to believe in one God. But if God is Three Persons, how can we say that we believe in one God?
At first glance that sounds like a mathematical impossibility. However, an example from nature may help to clear up the problem. We all know that a clover leaf is one leaf, not three. The leaf has three segments—three separate leaflets, if you please. Nevertheless, we call it a clover leaf, not clover leaves.
God is something like that: three individual parts, but one God.
If you’re a Christian and you have studied your beliefs carefully, you perhaps have always thought that the idea of the Trinity is only a New Testament idea. However, it is also clearly suggested in the Old Testament, beginning with the first chapter of the Bible. Speaking of the creation of Adam and Eve, God said, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26). Notice the pronoun us. That’s plural, and it’s plural in the original Hebrew language as well.
The same pronoun is used in the story of the Tower of Babel. God said, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other” (Genesis 11:7; emphasis added). Compare that with verse 4, where the people said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city” (emphasis added). We can easily understand the people using the word us, referring to themselves, because there were lots of them. It’s interesting—and I believe significant—that the Bible uses the same word when quoting God. Then there’s Isaiah 6:8. Isaiah had a vision of God in which God asked him the question, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (emphasis added). Same thing: God is plural.
Finally, there’s Deuteronomy 6:4, which says, “Here, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Your first reaction may be, There you have it! God is One. Interestingly, however, the Hebrew word is echad, which, like the English words flock and herd, is a singular word with a plural meaning. A flock of birds includes many birds, and a herd of cattle includes many bulls and cows.
God is a family
How many is a family? It all depends. If we think of the family as a unit, then it’s one. But if we think of it in terms of its individual members, then, by its traditional definition, it’s a mother, a father, and however many children they happen to have.
We can apply this same logic to the Trinity. God is a single unit that consists of Three Members, the Trinity. Thus, God is both singular and plural at the same time, which is no more of a mathematical problem than thinking of a family as both singular and plural at the same time.
Let’s carry this analogy of family a bit further. The word family carries with it the warm feeling of unconditional love and acceptance; and those of us who grew up in families like that have actually experienced this. If God is a Family, then God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit love each Other in much the same way that truly loving family members in our own world love each other. And that puts a whole new slant on the word Trinity. It’s really just another name for God’s loving Family.
The question is, What difference does it make? Of what practical value to your everyday life and mine is this idea of one God in Three Persons?
A lot, actually.
Ask yourself, for example, who it was that died on the cross.
“Why, it was Jesus, of course!” you say. “Everyone knows that.”
Now think of this: If Jesus was truly God, then it was God who went to the cross, who took upon Himself the guilt of our sins and paid for them with His death. And that gives me a whole new way to think about God. It gives me a reason for loving Him that would never have occurred to me had I thought Jesus was only a human like the rest of us.
And with the idea that God is a Family comes another important truth that the Bible teaches: you and I can become members of that Family. For we have been adopted into God’s Family as sons and daughters of the Father (Ephesians 1:5). Jesus is actually our Brother!
So the word Trinity, which all your life you thought was just another one of those ponderous terms that only the theological experts could ever care about, is really a name for God’s loving Family in heaven, of which you and I can be a part! (Though that doesn’t mean we’ll actually become divine, like the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.)
And it’s so easy to be a member of that Family. All you have to do is to tell Jesus that you would like to accept Him as your older Brother. He’ll take care of the rest.