Summary: Rather than explaining the Trinity, a better approach is to turn the matter on its head, and to set forth the questions for which the Trinity is the answer.
The Trinity Answers Three Questions
William Phelps taught English literature at Yale for forty-one years until his retirement in 1933. As he was marking an examination paper shortly before Christmas one year, Phelps came across the note on one student’s paper: " This is a mystery to me. Only God knows the answer to this question. Merry Christmas." Phelps returned the paper with this note: "God gets an A. You get an F. Happy New Year." [illustration hat tip to Roy Fowler].
Fortunately, we will not get an “F” at the Judgment because we do not understand the mystery that gives this Sunday its name in the liturgical year. Today is Trinity Sunday, and it inaugurates the longest liturgical season of the church calendar: Trinity-tide. Our archbishop once remarked that when new parishes, or poor parishes, go searching for used vestments to buy, the green ones are always the most difficult to find. That is because they used more than any other color of vestment, and so they wear out and there are fewer of them available for sale.
What has not worn out, of course, is the doctrine of the Trinity. It is the hall-mark of the Christian faith. It lies at the very core of what we believe, for it summarizes the Bible’s revelation about the nature of God Himself. The essence of that statement is found, among other places, in the first of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. It says:
“THERE is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in the unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
What we must understand is that statements like this are attempts to summarize, to accurately summarize, the revelation of the Scriptures concerning the nature of God. These are statements are not meant to be understood as explanations of the nature of the Godhead. Instead, they are meant to assert that nature – a tri-unity of persons, without explaining it.
A couple of years ago, Barbara and I were up in Iowa on a ministry trip and we attended the church of a young man who was using our Bible Study materials in his ministry to his college peers. We were curious about the kind of church he attended, and so we showed up that Sunday morning. It was Trinity Sunday, and the pastor set about to explain the Trinity to the congregation.
He didn’t get very far before I turned to Barbara with one of my eyebrows crawling up toward my hairline, and she immediately rolled her eyes around in her head, partly in amazement, partly in alarm. She leaned over to me and muttered in my ear, “Do you think we should get out of here before the lightening strikes begin to fall?”
Well, we stayed there, and the lightening did not fall. And this showed me how gracious God is, when one of his undershepherds compares him to a Hostess twinkie, and God’s flock roars in knowing laughter at the cleverness of the under shepherd.
So, I am not going to try to explain the Trinity to you in the next few minutes. There are any number of theology texts which will do a fine job of that, so far as it’s possible to explain the Trinity. Instead, I am going to turn the question around. Instead of answering the question, “How do you explain the Trinity,” I am going to point you to some puzzles of life that are themselves explained by the Trinity.
There is, for example, a very old problem in philosophy – it’s often called the problem of the one and the many. Mankind for centuries on end have noticed two things about the world they inhabit. The most immediate thing they notice is the bewildering diversity of stuff inside it. The universe contains everything from ants to elephants, molehills to mountains, grunge that grows under the refrigerator to the cedars of Lebanon, tiny fire-flies to the sun, moon, and stars.
At the same time, men have also observed that this wild diversity of things can be easily organized and categorized into groups of things. There’s a children’s guessing game that does this – it’s called animal, vegetable, mineral. That’s what scientists do – they discover the groups, the categories, the concepts that organize the universe they see, and they relate all things to these concepts, and then relate the concepts to one another in a sort of ascending hierarchy.
And, there’s the puzzle – the very scientific process itself leads one to wonder about the highest, grandest, most transcendent source of all things, and yet the higher one goes up the conceptual ladder, the more distant and irrelevant the multitude of things begins to appear. The temptation in philosophy is to suppose that the diversity is the real thing and the unity we sense is a mirage. Or, to suppose that the unity of all things is the only reality and the diversity we see all round us is actually a mirage.