Episode 102 - Is the Trinity a Contradiction?

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For many Christians, I think the Trinity is doctrinal baggage. I hate to say that, because the doctrine of the Trinity is a beautiful doctrine, a beautiful teaching about how God is and how the Bible talks about him. I will say, it is difficult to understand, and I don’t even think we can fully understand it, but for many people, it even seems contradictory.

I want to talk about that today, is the doctrine of the Trinity contradictory? Some people, especially non-Christians, would say yes. Some Christians even say yes, and they’re fine with that, and I think that’s extremely problematic. Often the confusion results from people saying that God is three in one. He’s three persons in one person, or he’s three beings in one being. You know what? If that were what the doctrine of the Trinity taught, that would be a contradiction.

The doctrine of the Trinity is that God exists as three coequal persons in one divine being. There are three persons in one being, not three persons in one person, not three beings in one being: three persons in one being. This is not a contradiction. A contradiction is a formal type of thing. People can’t just say, “Well, that’s a contradiction,” and not be able to substantiate that claim.

When someone says a certain belief is a contradiction, ask them to explain what they mean. Because unless their contradiction is in the form of “something is said to be this thing and not this thing at the same time,” it’s not a contradiction. Because to be a contradiction means to break the law of non-contradiction—one of the three laws of logic. That law simply says that “something cannot be what it is and what it is not at the same time and in the same way.”

God cannot be three in the same way that he is one. He’s not. He’s not three in being and one in being. He’s three in person and one in being. That is not actually a logical contradiction. Is it hard to understand? Yeah. I’ll give you that. It’s not a contradiction. That makes a world of difference.

We’ll talk about why I don’t think it should surprise us that it’s hard for us to understand that later. Now, why do Christians actually believe this thing? I’ve defined it extremely briefly: The doctrine that God is three persons in one divine being all have always existed. None were created, all are co-eternal, all are equal in power, and might, and glory. All of those things. That’s a doctrine of the Trinity. Why do Christians believe that?

Well, the Bible is full of teaching that there is one God. For instance, Deuteronomy 6, “Listen, O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is one.” Jesus actually says in John 10 that “the Father and I are one.” There is this oneness here. That claim is extremely controversial, at least it was back then. Because Jesus isn’t claiming that he and the Father are the same, he are saying they are of the same “type of thing.” “The Father and I are one thing.” The actual underlying Greek grammar supports that type of idea. Not that they are identical, but they are of the same thing, that they are both God.

We even see other places in the Gospels where Jesus claims to be the Son of God, and the Jews rightly understand that he is claiming to be equal with God, to be the same type of thing as God. That he’s claiming to be God. We see this oneness, but we also see distinct persons as is evidenced by Jesus being God, and yet, the Father being God. Yet, Jesus is not the Father.

Then the Holy Spirit comes along sent by Jesus and the Father, and he is fully God. He is divine also. We see that there is one God, and there are many passages that speak to this. We see that Jesus is God; he claims equality with the Father who is also God, and yet, we see that Jesus is not the Father in the same way that the Father is not the Spirit and Jesus is not the Spirit. There are three separate persons in God, in the one God.

Here are the three quick bulleted points to remember when talking about the Trinity.

  • There is one God
  • Jesus is God, the Father is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.
  • Jesus is not the Father. Jesus is not the spirit. The Father is not the spirit.

There are three persons in one God. Not three Gods, not three persons.

Three persons in one God. All persons are divine, all persons are God. There is not a division there. They are not each other.

Jesus comes to earth and dies on the cross, the Father doesn’t come to earth and die on the cross. The Father and the Son send the spirit. The spirit doesn’t send the spirit. They do different things. For instance, in John 6, the Father gives a group of people to the son, the son atones for them and raises them up on the last day. Different roles, but different persons also. We don’t just want to say that God takes on different forms, because that’s actually a heresy. That’s called Modalism where there is just one person in God, but God has taken on different forms at different times.

On a Modalistic view in the Old Testament, God revealed himself in the mode of Father. Then in the beginning of the New Testament, God reveals himself in the mode of Son, and then that same person goes up to heaven but comes back in the mode of the Holy Spirit. There are not three divine persons on Modalism. There is just one.

That is clearly contradictory to passages that present all three persons of the Trinity talking or working at the same time. For instance, at Jesus’s baptism, we see that Jesus is in the water, Jesus sees the spirit descend like a dove (I wouldn’t say it’s actually a physical dove) and the Father speaks from heaven to Jesus. Three actors, if you will, three persons doing things at one time. Not one person. Then we see Jesus praying to the Father. Without the doctrine of the Trinity, he’s just praying to himself, the same person. That doesn’t make sense.

The more we look at Scripture, the more we understand that salvation itself is a triune work of God. As I pointed to John six, the Father gives, the Son atones, the spirit applies, the Son lifts up, the Son mediates between us and the Father. Our whole salvation, and in fact, the Christian experience is triune.

As soon as we talk about God being love, this necessitates God being triune. Because to say that God existed eternally in the past, without beginning, and ye, was not loving something or someone until he created us would say that love is not a necessary attribute of God. Yet, when we understand God to be a Trinity, what we see is that God has been loving for all of time, and even before time he has been involved in a intra-Trinitarian, love relationship.

Even understanding love in regards to God, strengthens this idea that God must be a Trinity. Because to be fundamentally loving means you have always been loving. God has always been loving himself in the three members of the Trinity. While we’re here, let’s not be mistaken. God does love himself most and foremost, even before us.

Sometimes we, as the creatures, get this backwards. We think God loves us more than anything else and we are his chief purpose in life. That’s not true. He should be our chief purpose in life, and he is his chief purpose in life. It so happens though that the way that God glorifies himself is good for the Christian. He glorifies himself in working through us in saving us. That’s something that we can rejoice in, but it’s not something we boast in, in and of ourselves. We boast in God for that. God glorifies himself by doing something we couldn’t do, it works out well for us, and we praise him for it. I would say that’s a pretty good system.

Coming back to the Trinity more directly. Some people have asked, “Well, why doesn’t Jesus just say ‘I am God.’” Because God was understood to be one person, one being in the Old Testament in ancient Judaism. If Jesus claimed to be God, they would have thought he would be referring to the person we now know to be the Father. He would have been saying, “I am the Father.” That’s not true, he is not the Father, he is the Son. He says and does many things that all point to, and when you bring them all together, lead us to the inescapable conclusion that he is God. He says things like, “Before Abraham was, I am.” This hearkens us back to the Old Testament where God reveals himself to be I Am. He says, “I and the Father are one.” One thing. That’s another example.

He also says things like, “I am the Son of God.” Which is a claim to be deity. He accepts worship. He heals people, he forgives sins. He does so many more miracles. He exhibits power over demons. All of this points to him being God, but through Jesus’s own words, we see that God the Father is also God. You can’t take Jesus seriously and not come away with a belief that there are multiple persons in God.

Then of course the way Paul speaks about Jesus and different things like that leads us to the conclusion all the more that there are three persons in the one God. All are equally God. All have always existed. Jesus didn’t come into existence at a certain point in time. He has existed just as long as the Father has, which is to say, he has had no beginning.

Before we end today, I want to talk a little bit about analogies. Often, as soon as someone starts to explain the Trinity, they will pull out an analogy to help make it more clear. I would simply suggest to you that if you use an analogy, and someone feels like they now understand God better, they’ve actually understood him less well. Here’s why.

All analogies are excellent examples of some form of heresy. No analogy get all things right. For instance, I’ve heard that God is like water. There’s ice, and there’s liquid, and there’s steam. The problem is is that water is not ice, and liquid, and steam all at the same time. Yet God is Father, Son, and Spirit all at the same time. That analogy doesn’t work.

I’ve heard that God is like an egg, you've got the yolk, you’ve got the whites, and the shell. The problem is, a shell is not an egg, but Jesus is God. Yolk is not an egg, but the Father is God. That analogy fails too.

You got things like three leaf clovers. There are the three leafs, and then there’s the whole clover. The problem is is a leaf is not a clover. But Jesus is God. This is the same type of problem we saw before.

There are many more heresies, many more analogies. I understand the impulse. I want to be clear about this: I do understand the impulse about wanting to take this doctrine that can be confusing, that we can’t fully comprehend, and make it more palatable, more easy to understand for people. The problem is when we use analogies, we always diminish who God is. We round off the grandeur and the splendor of the doctrine of the Trinity to make it something that’s easier for man to hold onto. In doing so, we lose part of God’s self-revelation.

That’s the problem. We shouldn’t strive for easy, soft, comfortable ideas. We need to wrestle with the ideas that God has revealed to us in Scripture. We might not be able to feel like we understand that as well, but I would rather, and this is so key, have correct biblically-based beliefs that I don’t fully understand the ramifications of, than have incorrect beliefs that I can understand forwards and backwards.

I’m going to go with what the Bible says and not add to that, and not take away from that just so I feel better about the things that Scripture teaches. That is so important. Scripture teaches that there is one God, but it teaches that there are three divine persons that Jesus is God, the Father is God, the spirit is God, but it also says that those persons are not each other. They are distinct.

Now, how does that work? I don’t know. I’m comfortable saying I don’t know there. God hasn’t revealed that. Because he hasn’t revealed that, I think that drives people to want to find examples.

Here’s something to think about: should it really surprise us that nothing in the created world is a good analogy for its creator? Should it surprise us that God exists as something so totally different than his creation that we can’t find something in creation that mirrors him? I don’t think it should. The creator-creature distinction is larger than any of us ever give credit to. We are constantly, through our actions and thoughts, trying to implicitly shrink the divide between God and ourselves. To shrink the creator-creature distinction and divide. Now, this doesn’t mean that God isn’t knowable or approachable, that’s not what I mean. I mean that he is so different, and while we do process attributes that are similar to his, they’re different.

When we love and we think about what it looks like God to love as a result of how we love, we’re going to get some things wrong. Instead, we should go to Scripture and see what it says about how God loves. Whenever we reason from the creature to the creator, we will get things wrong.

We need to strive for correct biblically-based ideas, as opposed to ideas that are easier for us to grab onto. We need to be comfortable with some mystery when it comes to God and the things he has not revealed to us. He has revealed that there is one God, and the Father is God, the spirit is God, the Son is God, and those persons are not each other.

That is a simplistic view of the Trinity, that’s biblically accurate, there’s much more that could be said, we can flesh that out in multiple details.

We talked briefly about what it looks like for God to be love as a result of him being triune. There are many other examples of this, including even how salvation works. The doctrine of the Trinity should not be baggage for the Christian. It’s not a contradiction, it’s not the teaching that God is three beings and one being, or three persons in one person. It’s that he’s three divine persons in the one being of God. That is not logically contradictory.