I was attending college in Southern California when I had my first discussion with a Muslim about the nature of God. He was from Iran, highly intelligent and very polite. After listening to my stumbling words trying to explain the Holy Trinity, using my Sunday-school knowledge, he asked a one-word question: “Why?” I had learned the quaint analogy of the Trinity being like the three components of shell, yoke and white making one egg. There was also the one compound of water expressed in its three forms of liquid, steam, and ice. But no one had ever explained to me WHY the Trinity was important for my understanding of God. Was it? Or did it merely operate as a theoretical abstraction that needlessly divided people? I was speechless. My friend smiled but was kind and let the matter drop.
Several years later as my relationship with God was deepening, I came back to this topic. Besides Muslims, I had since bumped into Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses who ridiculed the absurdity of worshiping three gods. It was intellectually embarrassing. Was this Christian doctrine necessary for my faith? It certainly wasn’t convenient. I needed to explore it in earnest.
The first thing I realized was that the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible. It was coined by early Christians to describe a head-scratching phenomenon that careful study of the biblical documents revealed. Not only were there passages that stated there is only one God (Deuteronomy 4:32, Mark 12:29), there were passages where Heavenly Father was referred to as God (Isaiah 64:8, Galatians 1:1, Ephesians 4:4-6), passages where Jesus was referred to as God (John 10:30, Philippians 2:5-6, Colossians 1:15-17), and passages where the Holy Spirit was referred to as God (Acts 5:3-4, Ephesians 4:30, 2 Corinthians 3:17). How could this be? Some might have thought these were just the result of unreliable manuscripts. But others understood that an important aspect of God’s nature was being disclosed. They took the word for “three” (tri) and the word for “unity” and squeezed them together to form a description that in English is known as Trinity—three united as one.
There were a lot of people that didn’t like this understanding of the divine; it didn’t make sense to them. One guy in particular named Arius (Google him) led an opposition movement. He explained that Jesus was not an eternal being of the same divine substance as God the Father who had no beginning. Instead, Jesus must have been God’s very first creation—a powerful but limited, angelic-like being. This idea was easier on many people’s brains and Arianism gained a large following.
Another guy named Athanasius (Google him too) became the outspoken challenger to the teachings of Arius. Besides pointing out the scriptures that reference Jesus as God, Athanasius was concerned about our whole understanding of salvation. He wondered, if Jesus Himself was not fully God, what good did His death do in saving us from our sin? By stripping Jesus of divinity, Athanasius understood that our redemption would be empty and meaningless because only God Himself is holy enough to atone for all the sin of humankind.
In the end, the relentless determination of Athanasius won out, and the Western, Eastern and Coptic Churches rejected Arianism and embraced a purely Trinitarian understanding of God. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all have no beginning, no end, and work together so perfectly that they are rightly referred to as One.
But, why else?
This information helped. When someone later asked me if Jesus was praying to Himself while He was on earth, since He was God, I was able to find words to respond. The Father and the Son were individuals yet completely united in purpose as one. Therefore, Jesus was not merely praying to Himself but to His Father of the same divine substance as Himself.
However, I still struggled answering the question, “Why?” Athanasius had said that salvation as presented in the scriptures worked only with a triune God. Did this provide an acceptable reason for embracing the idea of three in one, even though it seemingly defies logic? Yes, I could simply choose to believe it. But I still longed for something more to tighten this Christian doctrine into my mind and heart.
I remember one day reading 1 John 4:8. I came across the phrase, “God is love.” As I meditated on these three words, I noticed that it didn’t say God is loving. It was speaking about His innate identity as love rather than merely His loving actions. Then I thought of Arius’ concept of God. How would this phrase apply to a divine being who for all eternity had dwelt completely by Himself until He made His first creature. How could it rightly be said that God IS love when for countless eons He had had no one to love? If we say He had simply loved Himself, then wouldn’t that make God the Narcissist of narcissists? No, to have His essence be agape love, He would have to have someone with Him to love for all eternity before anything else (angel or human) was created. How else could it be woven into His very identity?
And then I remembered Genesis 1:26: “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our own likeness.” In my mind, I heard the the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit expressing their perfect love for each other when one of them said, “We have so much love, because that is who we are. Let’s make humans, with a capacity for love, so they can join our Family and partake in the wonder of it all with us.”
Relationships—No trivial matter
It began to make sense. Why do I believe a Trinitarian understanding of God is necessary for my faith? While there can be multiple theological explanations, I believe the most important is because He is love. He’s not just a loving being. He’s the definition of love, with love as His essence and motivation. The Three united as One (that’s why I can call them ‘He’) have been loving one another for all eternity. As Jesus prayed to His Father, “I want those whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began!” (John 17:24, NLT).
The practical application of the Trinity for my life then is that God IS a relationship. Therefore to honor and love Him I must learn to value and honor my relationships the way He always has. Why are the two greatest commandments to love God AND love our neighbors (Mark 12:30-31)? I now understand that it’s because those commandments describe the essence of God’s eternal existence. To love God and people is how we bring joy to Him and become like Him. And of course, if we want to know what love really is like, we must study God, that is, the Trinity.
I may not be any better at winning debates or arguments with those who don’t believe in the Triune nature of God. The egg and water similes can be helpful but have serious limitations. However, I am now confident in WHY I believe that God the Father and Jesus the Son are one and it has become part of the core of my faith. God has redeemed me through His Son so that I can join His loving family as His child (read Choosing to Find My Place in the Father’s Heart).
What is the essence of your faith in God?