BELIEVING IN THE TRINITY AFFECTS ETERNITY
Have you ever asked yourself “What in the world do I need theology for?” Do we really need more theoretical knowledge to fill our heads with?
Theology is not just the theoretical opinions of a bunch of grey-haired, dusty scholars arguing over whose interpretation of a given Bible passage is the “right” one. Theology is practical. Theology has real-life consequences.
How so? Let’s take the Trinity, for example. Ever since I was a child I have believed in a triune God. I did not understand how it all worked, and my friends frequently questioned my faith. Sure, it’s a strange concept to wrap your mind, but what’s the big deal about believing in the Trinity or not believing in it? The church spent 451 years to figure out and explain what we believe in the creeds (“creed” literally means “I believe”). It’s helpful to look back at the history of our faith. It’s necessary to know who God is, and that includes an understanding of the Trinity.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
We need to understand that the creeds were written as a protection against heresy, especially Modalism (God appears in three different modes, as the Father or the Son or the Spirit), Arianism (since Jesus was begotten by the Father, he is made of God-stuff, but lesser than God the father), Adoptionism (the Son is adopted by God and the Spirit came upon him at his baptism and left before his crucifixion, so Jesus was a good and divinely empowered man only), Tritheism (three individual gods working together) and Subordinationism (the words “beget-begotten”, “send-sent”, “proceed” are said to indicate hierarchy in nature).
The church responded to these claims and debated the Trinity at the Councils of Nicea (AD 325) and Constantinople (AD 381). Based on Scripture, the leaders of the church affirmed two things:
JESUS IS GOD – NOT MADE FROM GOD-STUFF AND NOT A DIVINELY EMPOWERED MAN; HE IS ONE WITH GOD.
God the Father, the Son and the Spirit are one in nature/essence/being – not three separate beings (countering Tritheism) and not on different status levels (countering Subordinationism).
The disciples are commanded to go and baptize in the name – not names – of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19). Jesus claims to be God and does things that only Yahweh did in the OT (miracles, shining forth the Shekinah glory, forgiving sins). Jesus is God – not made from God-stuff (countering Arianism) and not a divinely empowered man (countering Adoptionism); he is one with God.
The church councils also affirmed the plurality of God. God speaks of himself in the first person plural (Gen 1:26, Gen 11 or Is 6:8-9), which is even reflected in his name, “Elohim” (“im” is the plural marker). When Jesus is baptized (Mt 3:16-17), the voice of the Father comes from heaven and the Spirit descends at the same time – three persons working together, not three modes of one being (countering Modalism). All three persons are individual, independent and separate entities with distinct actions and feelings.
Every person of the Trinity possesses the full essence of God in and of themselves but there is an order of derivation (or internal operation) and there is a primacy with the Father (Heb 2:10-11, 1.Cor 8;6) from whom are all things (he is uncreated and unmade). The Son is uncreated and unmade (countering Arianism), but he is begotten (Jn 3:16). The Spirit is uncreated and unmade, but he proceeds (Jn 15:26). Jesus’ begottenness does not change his pre-existence. He is the image of God. His derivation is an eternal begottenness. So Jesus has all the divine attributes. The Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and Jesus (Jn 14:26) and he proceeds from the Father and the Son (Jn 15:26).
Concerning the external operation of the Trinity, which applies primarily to creation and redemption, the church fathers expounded that the Father speaks and plans, the Son mediates and accomplishes and the Spirit hovers and applies (Col 1:15-16, Eph 3:9-11, 1.Pet 1:1-2, Tit 3:4-7). There is a priority, but no hierarchy and no “roles” (countering Subordinationism), which is a term the church fathers never used at any time.
IF JESUS IS ONLY HUMAN, HE CANNOT BE THE PERFECT SACRIFICE
There are lots of aspects about the Trinity that are still a mystery, but the Bible affirms that God is one and he is three; he is everything you can attribute to deity – he is the consummation of it all.
BUT WHY IS THIS QUESTION SO IMPORTANT?
If you do not have the Trinity you do not have a God-man that dies on the cross. The fullness of God adds to himself a human body. What he does on the cross is dependent on who he is. If he is only divine, he cannot (and would not – Greek and Roman gods were aloof and didn’t want to associate with humans) take upon himself the sin and iniquity of others. If he is only human, he cannot be the perfect sacrifice because he bears the blemish of original sin passed down by Adam and Eve; he can only – and very temporarily – atone for his own sins. The only blameless being in the universe is God himself. So he becomes incarnate without losing his divine attributes. Being 100% human and 100% divine, God functions as substitute and as representative. That’s why we are saved. My salvation depends on a God-man who took my place before the judge and rescued me from eternal damnation. This is no small matter!
The Trinitarian teaching also gives us confidence in Jesus’s words – because being God he has the authority to tell us how to live (and it’s not just about love and inclusion). Next time someone gets offended at the Christian truth just remember that our God became incarnate, died and rose from the dead, which is a lot more than other religions can claim! But it is more than a claim because God came near in Jesus and through the Spirit. God lives with us and in us – which other god does that?