The Necessity of the Trinity

Kevin Steyer

The Necessity of the Trinity

George Bernard Shaw once said, “There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.” This statement is false, but it is surprisingly not that far off the mark. There are of course countless more manifestations or denominations than there are actually totally different religions. In fact, slightly modifying Shaw, one could argue that there are only two religions, and there are a hundred versions of each. These two religions are the One-ist religion and the Two-ist religion. (I am indebted to Peter Jones’s excellent book, ‘The Other Worldview,’ for this distinction). The One-ist religion is the religion which believes that there is not an independent creator totally distinct in essence from the creation. In this religion, mankind and animals, the soul and the deities, spirit and matter, are all ultimately One, with no essential difference between them. Buddhism falls into this category, as does Hinduism. And so does secular evolutionary materialism. The Two-ist religion is the religion which believes in an essential difference between all that is created and a Creator. In this camp are Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. These are the three great monotheistic religions of the world. All three believe in a God who is eternal, omnipresent, and omniscient, and who is completely distinct from the created world. All three believe that this God ought to be worshipped, and that to worship created things is idolatry. All three have highly developed ethical systems, and in their best forms, have spawned highly virtuous individuals. All three believe that God has inspired an authoritative book that is the rule for faith and living. What, then, if any, is the difference between the God of Islam or Judaism and the God of Christianity?

The difference is whether God is understood to be personal or not. At least in Islam, God is, to quote a former professor of mine, “an undifferentiated, impersonal, non-dynamic, mono-static monad.” (I am still not entirely sure what the difference is between “non-dynamic” and “mono-static.”) This is not a criticism. It is merely a description of a God who is so Other, so transcendent, so static, so impersonal, that it is not really possible to know and love this God. In fact, this God of Islam is so impersonal that He is often referred to as Divine Reality, or as Absolute, who is so much not an actual being that He begins to be not too different from some nebulous energy.

The fascinating thing is that if one reads the medieval Christian mystics, God is understood in basically the same way. One somewhat famous medieval mystic, Angela of Folina, had this Otherness of God so deeply impressed on her spirit that at the moment of her death, she addressed God in this way: “O Unknown Nothing.” There is (maybe) something to be said for this, because it is true that God is not physically tangible the way creation is – in this sense He is ‘no thing.’ (And, although such a declaration sounds to us deeply strange, perhaps we should be equally shocked when we hear a believer pray to the Transcendent God of the Universe with the words, “Hey, God.”) It is also true that God is everywhere, and yet in one sense nowhere (there is no physical location where one can go to and physically find God there). It is true that God is so beyond our capacity to understand, that even those who do know God know almost nothing about Him. But despite all of this – and it is in fact necessary to affirm that God is emphatically not merely a superhuman, but a totally distinct, unfathomable essence – God is not merely a Divine Reality. He is a personal God. How is this possible?

It is possible because the God of Christianity is a Trinity, an absolutely unique concept when compared to any other religion in the world, including the other Two-ist religions. I have often wondered about this. I confessed that God is a Trinity, but I never really understood why He had to be a Trinity. What exactly about Christianity would be different if God were like the God of Islam? Even the incarnation, I think, is not inconceivable with a monadic God, like Allah is. And why can’t a Divine Reality save sinners? Well the point is not that salvation is not possible with a monadic God. The point is that a monadic God cannot truly and properly love, cannot be a Father or a Friend, cannot be – despite objections to the contrary – the “lover of my soul.” Yes, it is possible to be caught up in mystic rapture as a Sufi (the mystical branch of Islam being Sufism), or as a shaman, or as a Hindu yoga practitioner. But mystic rapture is not personal love. What the God of Christianity has for sinners is personal love, because He in Himself can love, because He is Three-in-One, a Unity knit together through love, through the Holy Spirit.

The historically orthodox Christian confession is that God is one essence, but three persons, in a relationship of perichoresis, meaning mutual indwelling. Father, Son, and Spirit are not three gods united into one because of perichoresis – this, in its most poorly formulated way, would be social trinitarianism. Neither are Father, Son, and Spirit only manifestations of a Supreme Being – this would be the heresy of modalism/Sabellianism/Patripassianism. Rather, Father, Son, and Spirit are all fully God, and yet distinct from one another, but inseparable. The Son is said to be eternally generated from the Father. The Spirit is said to proceed from the Father and the Son. All of this is deeply mysterious. As St John of Damascus, a towering figure in the early medieval period, said, “That there is a difference between generation and procession we have learned, but the nature of that difference we in no wise understand.” These inter-trinitarian relations are the source of all love, and at least one theologian has even referred to creation as an overflow of this love. Although we cannot mine the depths of the essence of the Trinitarian God, we can affirm these truths, and know God to be both Other as well as Personal. Therefore we are led to worship Him as the unfathomably awesome Creator, but also to trust Him and relate to Him as Friend, through Jesus Christ.

Writing to a suffering and despairing Christian woman, Samuel Rutherford said these memorable words: “Ye are now yourself alone, but ye may have, for the seeking, three always in your company, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I trust they are near you.” May the Lord grant that we never lose sight of the glory of the Trinity, of the necessity of the Trinity, and of the relationship that we can have with each person of the Trinity.

Ardsley Bible Church