Explaining the Impossible: Definitions of Trinity

There are many things that seem impossible to explain, like how the Dallas Cowboys could lose a playoffs game this season! Inexplicable. But somehow it happened.

Today we take an attempt at explaining and defining the Trinity. Alert: this is going to be ultimately impossible, and no attempt or illustration is quite adequate enough to do it. People have sometimes used the three properties of H20 – Ice / Water / Vapor to describe it, but this falls short.

So let’s go all academic and get a historic definition of the Trinity as outlined in the Westminster Confession:

“In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.”  (Westminster Confession of Faith, II/iii)

Christianity, therefore, is not totally and merely monotheistic, but Trinitarian. God exists as an eternal community of persons—Father, Son, and Spirit. The three essential teachings are:

(1)       There is one God

(2)       God exists as three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit

(3)       Each of these persons is fully God

Think of it this way using math: It is not 1+1+1=3, but 1x1x1=1.  But that illustration falls short also.

St. Augustine had famously said of the Trinity: “Try and understand it and you lose your mind; try and deny it and you lose your soul.”

With the concept of the Trinity, we are getting into a realm that is beyond our minds and experiential frame of reference in the material world to understand. But the Trinity is important simply because that is what God is like. To understand God—and to know Him relationally—we mustn’t ignore certain truths because they are difficult. The contemporary theologian, J.I. Packer writes:

“The historic formulation of the Trinity…seeks to circumscribe and safeguard this mystery (not explain it; that is beyond us), and it confronts us with perhaps the most difficult thought that the human mind has ever been asked to handle.  It is not easy; but it is true.”

Similarly, we should also recognize that the doctrine of the Trinity holds value in distinguishing the Christian faith from other major world religions. Not surprisingly, the brilliant C.S. Lewis wrote that the difficult teachings of Christianity prove that it is not something that man would ever have dreamed up:

“If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier.  But it isn’t.  We can’t compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we?  We’re dealing with Fact.  Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about!”

Gregory of Nazianus (4th century bishop of Constantinople) wrote that this truth always directed him toward worship:

“I cannot think of the One, but I am immediately surrounded by the Three; nor can I clearly discover the Three, but I am suddenly carried back to the One.”

If you have walked at all with the Lord and studied his Word, you know how incredibly true and insightful is that assertion.

While the Christian faith is reasonable and rationally defensible, there is a point at which faith enters the equation. It is believing in things that are beyond us, as it says in Hebrews 11 – “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”  Without the Trinity, the gospel falls apart, there is no true savior, and there is no indwelling of God within His people. You lose everything.

But the doctrine of the Trinity is true, and that holds all things together for life and eternity. It is essential.

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About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed 3-4 hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and am the editor of a Baltimore/Maryland sports blog called "The Baltimore Wire." My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with a Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

2 thoughts on “Explaining the Impossible: Definitions of Trinity

  1. Some years ago a blogger I followed who was critical of Christianity wrote something revealing that he thought the trinity doctrine to be illogical. I responded with an analogy that I came up with.

    I have a bank which is headquartered in a far away location that I’ve never been to. It is the “greater” bank. Yet I go to the same bank locally. It is a local branch. Two banks, yet still one bank. And I can also go online to do online banking and if I so desired I could go to any ATM and make a withdrawal without actually going to either bank.

    Each withdrawal or policy change that I make at one entity is approved of by the other banks. Policy may be set at the far away bank location. Any interaction or agreement that I make with the local branch is accepted by the main branch. The main branch and the local branch can access and approve any online banking that I do. Any withdrawal via my computer comes from money I might have deposited locally or had electronically deposited at a main or local branch. The local branch of my bank and the far away branch of my bank are one bank.

    The main headquarters is greater than the local branch. The local branch does what the headquarters branch wants it to do. Yet when (or hypothetically -“if”-) I want a human face to banking I go to the local branch and they are like an intercessor for the funds kept at the main bank or even some different electronic universe. I can even borrow money from them because they extend “grace.”

    As the local branch people do the will of the headquarters people, the headquarters is pleased with the local branch and approves of the decisions made at the local bank.

    I didn’t get that deeply into using the banking analogy to explain the trinity as I did here, – the blogger then replied that this is the first time he heard a banking analogy used to explain the trinity. A few months later he became a Christian.

    Maybe using this analogy of modern electronic instantaneous communication, we can better understand the interconnectedness that takes place in the spiritual realm between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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