“When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School during the 1970s, one of my teachers published a book entitled God the Problem,” writes Timothy George, contributor and editor of God the Holy Trinity, Reflections on Christian Faith and Practice.
“While reveling in obscurity and complexity may be the delight of some theologians, if there has ever been a genuine ‘problem’ in Christian doctrine, then surely it is how the eternal God can be both One and yet Three at the same time” (p. 9).
Yet, this is exactly what all orthodox Christians confess: that God is both One and Three, who has made Himself known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. While this doctrine is confusing and wrapped in mystery, it is essential to the Christian faith.
Valuable Insights from a Variety of Theological Traditions
God the Holy Trinity is a collection of essays originally presented at Beeson Divinity School’s symposium, “God the Holy Trinity: A Conference on Faith and Christian Life,” with speakers representing Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant (Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian and Holiness) theological traditions. The purpose of the book, as was the case in the conference, is not to ignore or deny the (sometimes severe) doctrinal differences between each of these traditions, but to present the best in trinitarian thought from each (in fact, only two of the contributors are not from Protestant traditions, as far as I can tell).
Every contribution contained valuable and thought-provoking insights, and it was actually quite refreshing to see such a diverse group firmly committed to the doctrine of the Trinity and it’s role in faith and practice. The Trinity infuses all of life and thought for the Christian—music, experience, unity, salvation, the pursuit of godliness, evangelism. There’s not a single thing that isn’t affected by the doctrine of the Trinity, and all the contributors serve their audience well by reminding us of this truth.
Explanation without Speculation
In expressing the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity, the contributors don’t shy away from the reality that God’s nature as One God in Three Persons is mysterious. Alister McGrath, in his opening chapter, offers a “dose of theological cold water,” reminding us that while the Trinity identifies and names God, forcing us to be “explicit about God in discussion,” we must be wary of subjecting the doctrine to “considerable theological speculation, occasionally leading people to see the Trinity as little more than a mathematical puzzle or logical riddle” (p. 35).
There comes a point where our best explanations will fall short of the mystery, and this is something we must embrace, particularly when talking about the Trinity.
The Heart of the Atonement
I greatly appreciated Gerald L. Bray’s chapter, focusing on the Christian experience of the Trinity. Bray writes to show that “the Christian doctrine of the Trinity did not emerge from some kind of philosophical speculation, but from the realities of the Christian spiritual experience of him” (p. 55).
What I like best about Bray’s chapter is that he asks good questions, even as he answers them. “Why is it so hard for Christians to let go of the Trinity when there seem to be so many things they may gain by doing so,” he writes (p. 43). And he’s right. Muslims and Jews both reject the Trinity as Tritheism. It is a stumbling block to them (a point Timothy George addresses in his contribution). It gets in the way of interfaith dialogue. Wouldn’t it be easier to just throw it away?
No, argues Bray. If we did, we’d actually lose the Christian faith altogether. Without the doctrine of the Trinity, penal substitutionary atonement—the basis of salvation through faith in Christ—is reduced to an act of horrific injustice, as some within evangelical circles today would claim (referring to it as “Divine child abuse”). Bray counters this well, arguing that, “such people have failed to grasp the voluntary nature of the Son’s substitution.”
God the Father never decided to punish his Son on our behalf, and given their fundamental equality within the Godhead, he probably could not have done so even if he had wanted to. It was only when the Son humbled himself and became a servant, to accomplish the Father’s will, that the Son became a man, since only in the mode of humanity could he pay the price of our redemption. If there is any “injustice” in this, it is not in the Son’s voluntary act on our behalf, but in the fact that we have been redeemed; we have received something from God that we have done nothing to deserve, and that all our own thoughts and desires make us unworthy to obtain (p. 51).
“At the heart of the atonement lies the relationship between the Son and the Father in the Godhead, without which is saving act could not have occurred,” writes Bray. And, according to Bray, this truth is at the heart of our experience of God.
Puritan theologian John Owen and J.I. Packer concur.
A Puritan Perspective
Introducing the views of Owen, who Packer calls one of his most honored travelling companions, he writes, “To [Owen, the Trinity] is, quite simply, the foundation of Christianity, which collapses without it” (p. 100).
The gospel of salvation through a divine-human mediator and a divine Spirit cannot be true if trinitarianism is false, nor can there then be such a thing as communion with the three persons of the Godhead distinctly (p. 100).
The truth of the Trinity, according to Packer and Owen, is “basic, crucial and totally nonnegotiable” (p. 101). The gravity of this statement cannot be overstated: To compromise on the doctrine of the Trinity is to lose the Christian faith. Owen’s work demonstrates the communion of the Trinity based in the distinction of their roles within divine saving activity. The Father is salvation’s loving originator, the Son is its loving achiever and the Spirit is its loving imparter. Each is essential, yet each is distinct.
Representing some of the finest trinitarian thinking of the last seventy five years, God the Holy Trinity presents readers with passionate and articulate essays on the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity to faith and practice. The Trinity lies at the heart of every Christian doctrine and every aspect of the Christian life. Because of its mystery, the doctrine of the Trinity leads us to humility.
I am humbled by the vision of God that is presented in this book. I hope you will be as well.