It’s one of the most confusing doctrines in all the Christian faith.
But it’s also among the most crucial.
In Making Sense of the Trinity, Millard Erickson shows readers the relevance of this doctrine, as he answers three crucial questions:
- Is the doctrine of the Trinity biblical?
- Does the doctrine of the Trinity make sense?
- Does the doctrine of the Trinity make any difference?
Is the doctrine of the Trinity biblical?
This is an important question, perhaps the most important. As Erickson writes in the opening pages, if “this strange-appearing doctrine is taught in the Bible, either explicitly or implicitly, we must accept it, or at least take it very seriously. If, on the other hand, the Bible does not assert such a teaching we may not be required to believe it… There is no virtue in continuing to hold such a difficult doctrine of the trinity if it is not actually taught in the Bible” (p. 17-18).
Erickson lays out the biblical foundation of the doctrine, showing where the doctrine is implicitly taught within the Old and New Testament, looking at support for the unity of God, the deity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (all of whom are referred to in multiple passages as God), and the three-in-oneness of God. And honestly, there’s a lot there. As you look at the Baptismal formula, Jesus repeatedly identifying himself as God by implication throughout the gospel of John and a host of other passages, we’re lead to the inevitable conclusion that the doctrine is, in fact, biblical. Erickson writes,
We may say, then, that when the whole text of Scripture is taken seriously, the doctrine of the Trinity emerges. It teaches clearly that God is one and is unique, that he is the only God that is true and exists. It teaches, either directly or indirectly, that there are three persons who are fully divine, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And it also teaches, indirectly and by implication, that these three are one (p. 42).
Does the doctrine of the Trinity make sense?
With a biblical foundation in place, Erickson asks does the doctrine of the Trinity make sense? Must we, as he puts it, “choose between our Christian commitment and our rationality” in order to believe it? This is where things get more than a little confusing for most believers. “[M]ost attempts to explain the Trinity have fallen into two major types: those that emphasize the oneness and seek to explain the threeness of God in light of this, and those that emphasize the threeness and treat the oneness in relationship to it” (p. 45). In other words, it’s very easy, to varying degrees, to fall into two traps with this doctrine; to trend toward a type of modalism which sees God as only one person who has three modes of existence, or to gravitate toward tritheism (the belief in three separate Gods).
As an explanation of the Trinity, Erickson suggests the concept of perichoresis, that “the interpenetration of life and personality within the Godhead, the idea that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are bound together in such a close unity that the life of each flows through each of the others, and each has access to the thought and experience of others” (p. 57).
If I understand correctly, this puts forth the Trinity as a society of three, so interconnected that they are one. This helps us understand the essential characteristic given to God: Love. For love to be genuine, it must execute on another outside of the individual expressing love. But if God is only one, it creates a problem: He would need to create others to love. And because he lacks, he would not be sufficient in himself and not actually God. Instead, the Bible presents us with God as he is, who creates, not out of need, but out of an overflow of love.
Does the doctrine of the Trinity make any difference?
Erickson demonstrates in his answer(s) to this final question that, yes, the doctrine of the Trinity matters.
Without the doctrine of the Trinity, the atonement is unethical and immoral. It would be akin to, as some prominent authors have described it, “divine child abuse.” However, the doctrine of the Trinity defuses that argument altogether. Erickson suggests, it might be more accurate to describe the atonement as “the Son, on behalf of the Trinity, sacrificially offers his life to the Father, who accepts it on behalf of the Trinity. There is surely nothing immoral or unethical about such an act” (p. 75). Simply put, a correct understanding of the Trinity makes the atonement make sense—not as God the Father unjustly punishing an innocent, but as God taking it upon Himself.
Without the doctrine of the Trinity, there is nothing that truly distinguishes Christianity from other religions. The doctrine “defies assimilation,” as Erickson puts it. Christianity is distinguished from strict monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Islam, but also from polytheistic, pantheistic and panentheistic religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism. “None of these contain anything quite like the doctrine of the Trinity,” writes Erickson (p. 76).
Without the doctrine of the Trinity, we have no model for functional subordination. All believers are equal, but we’re all called to submit; to serve. And we see this in how God has modelled this for us. Jesus stepping down from equality with the Father is the perhaps the clearest example (cf. Phil 2). The incarnation didn’t remove his status as being equal with God; he added humanity to himself to live and die on our behalf. And because God did this, we should do likewise.
There’s a lot that could be discussed about this book, but here’s the bottom line: While a perfect understanding of the Trinity is out of reach for all of us, growing in our understanding of this doctrine does greatly enrich and benefit our spiritual lives as we grow in our relationship with the God who is both three and one. We begin to understand that God is truly sufficient in himself, and not simply a narcissist. We see a model for submission and service. And we see just how distinct Christianity truly is.
If you want to build a solid framework in this doctrine, Making Sense of the Trinity is a good place to start.
Title: Making Sense of the Trinity
Author: Millard J. Erickson
Publisher: Baker Academic
A review copy was provided by Baker Publishing Group.