When the video link arrived in my in-box, I had to take the bait. The sender was a witty friend who could invariably be counted on for a good laugh. Meantime, I usually learned something of significance.
“Saint Patrick’s Bad Analogies,” read the subject line. The video featured a brief, wonderfully cheesy cartoon starring two humble Irish snake farmers (hey, it’s a spoof) asking Saint Patrick to “tell us a bit more about this Trinity thing” (that’s the significant part).
Patrick ventures to accomplish this via various analogies, which only motivate the uneducated farmers to heap scorn on obvious flaws in his comparisons. That’s modalism, Patrick. Arianism. Partialism. C’mon, Patrick! The terms might baffle us, but the video cleverly and clearly explains the problem with each of Patrick’s analogies. Check it out for yourself, here.
Now, no one really knows if Patrick actually used the analogy of a shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity. That legendary detail seems just a little too convenient to be believed. But any analogy is going to be limited when it comes to explaining the infinite God. So why do we try?
One reason is that we love to have answers. It’s humbling to be unable to explain things. And isn’t the Trinity pretty basic to our Christian beliefs? (Answer: yes.)
Another reason is that the idea of a Trinity creates a substantial obstacle for the potential faith of others, and we’d really like to help them understand what we believe. How do we counter their charge that we believe in multiple gods?
A third reason is that grappling with the monumental question of the nature of God is simply good for us. The more we ponder his character, the more we get to know him. In the process, we begin to realize we don’t know much at all. Which brings us back to that humility thing.
But we can learn enough to formulate a defensible theology. And it makes sense to consult the Bible as we construct this theology.
We first catch a hint of this Triune God in Genesis when God says, “Let us make human beings” (1:26). Although Genesis doesn’t define who “us” is, Exodus soon gives us another glimpse. “I am who i am,” God told Moses when asked his name (3:14). Okay, that’s about as understandable as the concept of the Trinity, but it’s something. The God we see in Exodus defies description and is powerful beyond comprehension, which is why the Israelites feared him greatly (see Exodus 19 for a small taste of that).
Throughout the Old Testament we read references to God’s “Spirit” and “the Lord’s presence.” This is all quite mystical, as you might expect of the all-powerful God.
But in the New Testament, the concept of “this Trinity thing” begins to come into focus. We see more clearly the primary pieces of the puzzle. Okay, that’s a bad analogy—probably a variation on partialism. Partially.
John’s account mirrors Genesis. He writes:
“In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1–2)
John tells us of this Word, “He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him” (1:10). Then he says, “So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (v. 14).
Forget The Shack. John tells us that Jesus is God in the flesh.
This Jesus told his disciples, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father!” (John 14:9). And he said, “Just believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (v. 11). Then he promised, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth” (vv. 16–17).
Granted, Jesus never used the word “Trinity.” That’s our finite attempt to explain the infinite—which, of course, is what God is. But he can be known.
Keep in mind how inaccessible God was in the Old Testament. The holy God could not be approached, except on his specific terms. The Hebrews fled from him in fear and insisted that Moses do all the dialoguing with God for them. Failure to follow divine protocol meant instant death.
Juxtaposed against all of that awesome power and fear is a most surprising aspect of the Trinity—something we’re drastically short of ourselves. Humility!
The apostle Paul writes of an astonishingly humble God, revealed in the person of Jesus.
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6–8)
Earlier I mentioned we seek complete answers because it’s humbling not to have them. Here in Philippians we come to something else we cannot fully grasp. God … takes on human form … and dies a criminal’s death! The very thought stops us short. We pause in reverent silence as we ponder the possibility. Who can explain this? We’ve come to something holy. Something beyond us. And yet—because of Jesus—something within our reach.
Conversely, in Isaiah, we encounter a prime example of one who is not humble. Some theologians say the subject is merely the king of Babylon; others make the contention that the passage has a dual application to Lucifer himself. Regardless, this “shining star” is the antithesis of the Trinity.
“How you are fallen from heaven,
O shining star, son of the morning!
You have been thrown down to the earth,
you who destroyed the nations of the world.
For you said to yourself,
‘I will ascend to heaven and set my throne above God’s stars.
I will preside on the mountain of the gods
far away in the north.
I will climb to the highest heavens
and be like the Most High.’” (Isaiah 14:12–14)
The terrifying yet humble “I am” of Exodus 3 versus the proud and defiant “I will” of Isaiah 14. Oddly—counterintuitively—humility wins.
We might sum up the concept of the Trinity like this.
The Father in heaven
Sent Jesus the Son to dwell with us in time and space
Who then promised us God’s Spirit
Who lives within us
Making us brothers and sisters in Christ.
As Paul puts it:
“There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of all,
who is over all, in all, and living through all.” (Ephesians 4:5–6).
How do we explain the Triune God? Well, we can never adequately do so. And that’s the point. A god we can fully comprehend is no God at all.
“Holy, holy, holy,
Merciful and mighty,
God in three persons,