Reality: Chapter 5
By Dr. J. Rodman Williams
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The Holy Trinity
In a letter to a friend, Thomas Jefferson wrote of the "incomprehensible
jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic that three are one, and one is three."
He then urged the importance of Christianity getting back to the "pure
and simple doctrines" Jesus taught. This sentiment doubtless finds echo
among many people in the church today. Would we not be better off to travel
with less theological baggage- -and jargon- -and streamline our faith? Is it
not hard enough to believe in one God without adding this mystification about
a Holy Trinity? We often sing about "God in three persons, blessed Trinity."
Is this view of God as Trinity meaningful or helpful in our time?
One answer sometimes given is that the Holy Trinity is an essential
dogma of Christianity and must be accepted whether we like it or not. This doctrine
belongs to the church's "deposit of faith"; it is affirmed in great
creeds such as the Nicene and Athanasian; it accordingly is a fundamental doctrine
in the life of the church. Anyone therefore who does not accept this dogma could
scarcely qualify to be called Christian. Furthermore, belief in this dogma is
sometimes said to be essential to salvation. The Athanasian creed, just mentioned,
begins, "Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that
he hold the Catholic faith...and the Catholic faith is this: that we worship
one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor
dividing the substance." Finally, after many further, still more technical,
statements, the Creed continues, "He therefore who would be saved must
think thus of the Trinity." We had better "think thus" and so
believe...or else forfeit our salvation.
However, it is not very compelling today to say: the doctrine of
the Trinity belongs to the Catholic, universal faith; the church teaches, so
we believe. Maybe one should grit his teeth and say, "If I have to believe
it, I suppose I will"; but there seem to be increasingly fewer people who
find themselves able to do that. Further, it may not be quite clear why holding
a particular doctrine- -thinking in a certain way- -can have so much effect
on one's eternal destiny. Is it really that important? Can we not travel a little
lighter and perhaps be better off?
Protestants have traditionally sought to go back behind creed and
dogma to the Scriptures themselves. To be sure, dogma and creed are important
as representing the church's considered judgment about matters of faith. But
for those in the Protestant tradition, the prior matter has been: if the Bible
says so, we are summoned to believe in all matters having to do with faith and
life. If the Scriptures, which are the Word of God, teach a doctrine of the
Holy Trinity, then it is ours to attend to with profound seriousness- -no matter
how we may feel or think about it.
Actually, however, there is no doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible.
The word "Trinity" is nowhere to be found, nor the language "one
God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity," and certainly nothing about needing
to believe this for salvation. What we do have, however, might be called the
raw materials for such a doctrine; for the New Testament is laden with the names
of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while vigorously affirming that God is one.
And though there is no suggestion that we must believe this for eternal blessedness,
there is the witness that to be truly Christian is to live in the reality of
God as Triune.
Materials for a Trinitarian doctrine may be found in such words
as Matthew 3:16-17, "the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting
on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom
I am well pleased.'" The Holy Spirit, or Spirit of God, is mentioned, Jesus
is addressed as the "beloved Son," and clearly the voice is "the
heavenly Father." Though this is no doctrine yet of a Triune God, the materials
are here- -and elsewhere- -that will later lead to detailed theological formulation.
Or take for example the apostolic benediction of 2 Corinthians 13:14, "The
grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the
Holy Spirit be with you all." These, along with other words like "there
is no God but one" (1 Cor. 8:4), afford further grounds for development
of Trinitarian doctrine.
But, more significant than the function of the Scriptures as material
for doctrine (with their implicit Trinitarian theology) is the witness of Scripture
that Christian life is that lived in the reality of God as Father, Son, and
Holy Spirit. The Scriptures nowhere suggest that to believe in God as Trinity,
or Triune- -or to "think God" in such and such a manner (often leading
to speculation and abstractness)- -is really the important thing. The concern
is that people be introduced into the reality of God as Father, Son, and Holy
Spirit. It is primarily the matter of a life to be lived, not a teaching or
doctrine to be held.
The one most obviously Trinitarian verse in the New Testament, Matthew
28:19, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them
in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," contains
nothing about teaching people that God is Triune (teaching follows in the next
verse- -"teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you").
Rather what is commanded is the act of baptizing "in" (or, better
still, "into") the name.... The purpose of that part of the Great
Commission "Go therefore...baptizing" is not to make learners out
of people in regard to God, but to introduce them into life lived in the reality
of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, we tend to think of this
verse too much in terms simply of a baptismal formula. We fail to recognize
that it refers to the most extraordinary of human possibilities, namely, baptism
into the reality of Triune existence.
The earliest disciples of Jesus did not, by any means, start with
a doctrine of Holy Trinity. There was not yet any dogma, no New Testament Scripture.
The only thing that they had ever heard about God numerically was that He was
one and not three. The Old Testament had vigorously affirmed, "Hear, 0
Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord." This was not just doctrine they
had been taught, it was also deeply ingrained in their life and experience.
The early disciples, as orthodox Jews, were radical monotheists; they abominated
anything by way of idolatry or polytheism that would possibly dilute their faith.
They were Unitarian- -quite far from being Trinitarian. Yet, something amazing
happened in their experience: a band of orthodox, monotheistic, even Unitarian
Jews began to speak about the one God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Before
too long the early church was baptizing people into this Triune Name. Such an
extraordinary change was not due to better or higher instruction. This could
not have brought it about. Like their earlier faith in the one God, the conviction
of His reality as Triune was burned into their life and experience.
This change occurred over a period of years, and it happened because
of their association with Jesus of Nazareth. First, they came to know and experience
God as Father. The teachings of Jesus had much to do with this, for He frequently
spoke of God as "heavenly Father" and taught His disciples to pray
"Our Father...." In many sayings and parables Jesus depicted God's
paternal care. But, more than this, the disciples came to experience God as
Father through their sharing with Jesus His trust, assurance, and confidence
in the Father's will. It was a baptism into life totally caught up in the reality
of God as Father.
Also something else began to take place in the faith of the disciples.
They gradually came to the astounding conviction that in the flesh of this Jesus
of Nazareth they were being confronted with the reality of God Himself! As time
went on they began to realize that, however human Jesus was (of that they had
no doubt), there was something mysterious about Him, something that human categories
could not contain. This Jesus did things only God could do- -or had any right
to do. He forgave sins, He healed the helplessly crippled, He stilled the waves
of the sea, He cast out demons, He raised the dead. The disciples found themselves
(the shock of this is hard for us to imagine), orthodox Jews, addressing Jesus
as Lord, falling down before Him in worship, and, climactically, becoming convinced
of His resurrection after He had been put to death. They came to know Him as
Savior too, for they received His gracious forgiveness after a terrible night
of betrayal and denial; and they found new life in His name. How could they
doubt it? Here was God in one who called himself "the Son of man";
was He not verily also the Son of God? Thus did they come to know and experience-
-shall we say, were baptized into- -the reality of God as Son.
That of course is not the whole story; a very important part remains
to be told. Some weeks following Jesus' resurrection came the Day of Pentecost.
After much prayer and waiting these same disciples were suddenly visited by
an overwhelming sense of God's presence and power. They came to know, to experience-
-all through their life and community- -the dynamic reality of God as Spirit.
They were "filled with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:4), and in the fullness
of that event they broke forth into tongues of inspiration, they witnessed mightily
and effectively to Jesus Christ, they found healing going forth from them, on
and on. What was it all about? Jesus was no longer with them in the flesh, but
this was undoubtedly the same power of God that they had recognized operating
in His humanity; and indeed they knew that it was coming through Him. It was
not the Father, not the Son, but the Spirit flowing from the Father through
the Son- -and they were pervaded wholly by it. They truly were baptized into
the Holy Spirit...and life would never be the same.
For these disciples, clearly, a statement about God as Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit was not dogma, nor was it an abstruse teaching they had to accept
for salvation. It was rather the reality of God wrought into their lives. It
was not creed yet, or theology (such as "one God in Trinity and Trinity
in Unity"). It was that which precedes all significant theology: event,
happening, experience. They had been reluctantly, almost unwillingly, led into
the reality of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They had entered into Triune
Now it makes sense to note how the early church sought to bring
people into the same reality. Jesus of Nazareth as Risen Lord and Savior they
proclaimed, One sent by God the Father, and through believing in Him the Holy
Spirit could be received. In some instances baptism was into the name of Jesus
only (as in Acts) and hands were often laid for the reception of the Holy Spirit.
But the important thing was that people know and participate in the full reality
of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So do we find, in a climactic way, the
words of Matthew, "Go therefore...baptizing them into the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
Thus what is vital in talking about the Holy Trinity is that it
is not simply a doctrine to be embraced but a reality to be lived. Every Christian
knows something about this Triune life through his baptism in the name of the
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However and whenever the water was applied, the
essential matter is that it was done in- -or into- -the name of the Father,
Son, and Holy Spirit. This meant initiation into Triune living; but it may have
been only the introduction, especially if this occurred in infancy. The important
thing is to grow up into baptism, to enter into life lived in the reality of
God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Westminster Larger Catechism contains
the interesting question, "How is our baptism to be improved by us?"
to which the reply in part reads, "The needful, but much neglected duty
of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long...by growing
up to assurance of pardon of sin...by drawing strength from the death and resurrection
of Christ, into whom we are baptized...and to walk in brotherly love, as being
baptized by the same Spirit into one body." How far have we grown up to
what our baptism signifies? Is there neglect here so that we may still think
of the Holy Trinity as a distant doctrine rather than living reality to be experienced?
The question might be put this way: How far along are we? We may,
in addition to baptism, have confessed publicly (as at confirmation) the faith
into which we were baptized- -and this is surely good. But have we come to the
place of existential commitment and openness to God the Father, Son, and Holy
Spirit? It is unfortunately the case that many people are still practically
and experientially Unitarians (here, incidentally, may lie the problem about
the Holy Trinity seeming like "incomprehensible jargon"). God the
Father in some sense they know; there is some recognition of His fatherly goodness
and provision. They can pray the Lord's prayer, "Our Father, " with
a modicum of conviction, but that is about all. Of Jesus Christ as Savior and
Lord, however, they know personally very little- -and perhaps even less about
the Holy Spirit.
Concerning the former, one may recall the story of John Wesley,
baptized and confirmed in the Anglican church, but who not until much later
came to realize that he did not actually know Jesus of Nazareth and His salvation.
To the Moravian who pointedly asked him, "Do you know Jesus Christ?"
Wesley could only reply, "I know that He is the Savior of the world."
Whereupon Wesley was asked the question that shook him profoundly: "True,
but do you know that he has saved you?" Wesley did not really know
this- -not until Aldersgate some time later. About this life-changing experience
he wrote in his journal, "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did
trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me
that he had taken away my sins, even mine." Wesley had "grown up"
to assurance of pardon; his baptism into the name of Jesus Christ was now a
vivid reality. Have we gotten that far?
However, baptism is not only into the name of the Father and Son;
it is also into the Holy Spirit. Here it may be that baptism is most neglected,
for whatever may be known about the Father and the Son, practically and experientially,
many would confess to know little about the Holy Spirit. They may not be in
such sad case as those early disciples who, upon hearing Paul's question, "Did
you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" replied, "No, we have
never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit" (Acts 19:2). For they doubtless
have heard about the Holy Spirit and have been baptized also into His name.
But- -the urgent question- -have they come to know this in terms of a sense
of God's presence and power? This means life claimed by God through Jesus Christ
in a total kind of way, the Spirit of the living God probing the depths of the
conscious and the unconscious, releasing (as on the Day of Pentecost) new powers
to praise God, to witness compellingly in His name, to do mighty works that
only He can do. Do we know this?
Here it may be that we have struck upon the greatest problem in
the church today: the lack of power. There is a spiritual vacuum, a feeling
of emptiness, a sense of impotence. Where, many are asking, is the dynamic reality
of God's presence? In an article appearing in The Christian Century1
entitled, "The Power of Pentecost: We Need It Now More Than Ever,"
the author asks, "Why in every sector of Christianity today [is] there
so little evidence of spiritual power?" "I am haunted," he continues,
"by the memory of Pentecost and its power surging into the hearts of the
disciples long, long ago. Where is that power today? Can it come among us again?"
Then, finally, he adds, "It is time we took Pentecost seriously and eagerly
received a new infusion of the Holy Spirit."
How does this register with us? Are we haunted likewise by that
New Testament picture of "power surging" through the disciples long
ago; do we wonder too if that power may come among us again; are we disturbed
about the lack of spiritual vitality, joy, and enthusiastic witness? Is the
Holy Spirit, the vast area of Christian living, yet unfulfilled? If so, there
is no other way than expectant waiting upon the Lord in a prayerful attitude
of "Come, Holy Spirit, come. Baptize us with power from on high."
This means a yielding of ourselves, a submission, a childlike saying yes to
God- -and a willingness for Him to possess us completely. And then it may happen;
the Spirit of God is poured forth.
In conclusion: The Holy Trinity has been discussed not primarily
as a matter of church dogma, or even as a Scripture teaching to be accepted,
but as the summons to a life of Triune existence- -life lived in the reality
of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God grant that we may enter fully into
this divine heritage.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
1. May 13,1970.
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Content Copyright 2003 by J. Rodman Williams,
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