Three Is the Loveliest Number
Three Is the Loveliest Number
There is something irresistible about overhearing your name being whispered in a private conversation. Usually (of course) I try to stop my ears, but once I could not help taking in this little snippet, which has tickled me ever since:
"Yes, well, Reeves does love that Trinity stuff." (Picture eyes being rolled.)
It was the way this Christian man put it that fascinated me: not "Reeves does love God," but "Reeves does love that Trinity stuff." His choice of words seemed to sum up perfectly a common perception: that there is the God we know and love—and then, in some mental ivory tower far, far away, there is that Trinity stuff.
That mathematical mystery. That mind-bending oddity. That strange, even embarrassing idea. Yes, deep within the Christian psyche today seems to be the notion that the Trinity is an awkward and odd irrelevance, an unsightly wart on our knowledge of the true God. And so, when it comes to sharing our faith, we speak of God's offer of salvation, we speak of God's free grace, but we try not to let on that the God we are speaking of is a Trinity. We wax lyrical about the beauty of the gospel, but not so much about the beauty of the God whose gospel it is.
It is time to stand up and say, "No!" to such nonsense, to turn our backs on the absurd notion that our beautiful gospel could ever come from a God who is not the very perfection and essence of beauty. For the health of the church and our faith, we must be proud of who our God is. And since the Trinity is no mere theological icing resting atop our God—since the living God is Trinity—we must be resolutely and thoroughly Trinitarian in all our ways and thoughts.
Only then will we truly enjoy what sets the living God apart from the gods of human imagination. Only then will we know a God good enough to offer truly good news. And this, in fact, is the nature of the very eternal life for which we have been saved: knowing God. As Jesus prayed, "[T]his is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (John 17:3).
Where to Start?
The trouble is, the Trinity seems to be completely surrounded by the most intimidating mental razor wire. For the average Christian, the word mystery is enough to halt all further inquiry. If the Trinity is a mystery, why even bother trying to understand? (Modern connotations of "mystery" don't help. In the New Testament era, a mystery was not a riddle to be solved, but a truth revealed to the faithful—something disclosed, not kept hidden.) Then, for the more intrepid, there is a regiment of supposedly helpful illustrations to negotiate: God is like a three-part leaf, like the three states of water, like the three branches of the U.S. government. They leave one, at the very least, feeling that this God is rather bizarre.
But Christians have not come to believe that the God of the Bible is a Trinity because they have sensed his resemblance to some leaf, drink, or political structure. Christians insist on the Trinity because of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As the Son of God, Jesus reveals a God who is a Father. Before anything else, that is the eternal identity of the God revealed in Jesus. "Father," says Jesus in John 17:24, "you loved me before the creation of the world." Before all things, the God made known in Jesus was a Father loving his Son.
This is precisely why the apostle John can write that "God is love" (1 John 4:8, emphasis added), for this God would not be who he is if he did not love. If at any time the Father did not have a Son to whom he gave his life and love, then he simply would not be a Father. To be who he is, then, this God must give out life and love. And so we begin to see why the Trinity is such good news: God is love because God is a Trinity, because for eternity this God has been giving out—positively bursting with—love for his Son.
How the Father loves and delights in his Son is something we get to see in the baptism of Jesus. There the Father declares his love for his Son and his pleasure in him as the Spirit rests on the Son like a dove. For the Spirit is the one who makes the love of the Father known, causing the Son to cry "Abba!" (see also Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6 for how he does the same for the adopted children of God). Thus Jesus is called "the Anointed One" ("the Messiah" in Hebrew, "the Christ" in Greek), for the Father loves, blesses, and empowers him by anointing him with his Spirit.
All of which is to say, briefly, that when you start with the Jesus of the Bible, you inevitably arrive at a triune God. John wrote his gospel, he tells us, "that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31). But even that simplest call to faith in Jesus is an invitation to a Trinitarian faith: Jesus is described as the Son of God. God is his Father. And he is the Messiah, the one anointed with the Spirit.
Yet while Jesus does reveal a triune God, this triune God that he makes known does not come across as anything like a philosophical headache. Here is a God who is delightfully different from all others, a God who is love: a Father, loving and giving life to his Son in the fellowship of the Spirit.
A Far Sweeter Gospel
To taste the difference the triune nature of God makes, let's step back for a moment and imagine something. What if God was not Father, Son, and Spirit? What if God was really just a single person? Well then, for eternity before Creation he must have been all by himself: no relationship, and nobody and nothing else for him to love. For eternity. This God simply could not have love at the very core of his identity. So would he be the sort of God inclined to be gracious toward us? Most unlikely. And, not having ever known fellowship himself, would he want to have fellowship with us? Would he even know what fellowship means? By definition, a single-person God is not inherently about love and relationship; its "gospel" must be a very poor thing next to the gospel of the God who is love.
But with the triune God, what good news we have! The eternally beloved Son, the delight and joy of his Father, comes to share with us the same love the Father has always given him. He comes from "the bosom of the Father" (John 1:18, NASB), announcing his desire that believers might be with him there (John 17:24), that we might be brought before the Most High—not just as forgiven sinners, but as dearly beloved children sharing the Son's own "Abba!" cry. Because God is Father, Son, and Spirit—and only because God is Father, Son, and Spirit—we can bask in those gorgeous words of the Son to his Father: "you … have loved them even as you have loved me" (John 17:23). The Father's eternal love for the Son now encompasses us. Thus with this God we have a gospel better even than forgiveness—we can have the security and intimacy of children. Beloved children of the Most High! No other God could bring us so close and have us so loved; no other God could so win our hearts.
In fact, with this God the good news doesn't stop there. In stunning contrast to all single-person gods, who must remain isolated in their divine transcendence, this God comes to us—comes into us!—to share with us and bring us into the life that is his. The Spirit opens my eyes to who Christ beautifully is, in all his loving kindness. He wins my heart so that, for the first time, I begin to enjoy the Son as the Father has always enjoyed him. In other words, through the Spirit, the Father brings us to share in his own joy, in the delight he has always had in his Son. The Spirit also gives us the mind of Christ, enabling us to share in his deep delight in the Father. Thus the Spirit makes us godly: Fatherlike, we enjoy the Son; Christlike, we enjoy the Father.
Now if God were a single person, godliness would be entirely different, and not about such outward-focused love and enjoyment. If for eternity he had only himself to consider, then surely self-obsession would be the highest form of godlikeness. But self-love and self-obsession are the very antithesis of this other-centered God: He offers liberation from our slavery to self, opening us out to love others as he loves. Only because God is triune can he offer us such freedom.
In the triune God we have a magnetically attractive God of overflowing love and radiant joy, the Father, Son, and Spirit finding their happy satisfaction and everlasting delight in each other. And since we become like what we worship, if we press in to know this God better, we will become delighted, friendly, and winsome, like our God. Just imagine what the world would make of that.
And it is not just the Christian life as such: The triune nature of God imbues all of life with a beauty it could never otherwise have. Because God is a relational God, the Father eternally knowing and loving the Son in the Spirit, relationships and love make sense. Indeed, this God is why they exist at all. What solitary God would imagine such things, except out of envy? Because the Father, Son, and Spirit have eternally existed in thrilling harmony, a world of harmonies makes sense. With this God it makes sense that different musical notes should come together pleasingly. The loving unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit gives us a rationale for why men and women, black and white, introvert and extrovert should come together, not to be identical, but to be united in love.
We have seen so little here, it is as if we have but smelt the banquet from afar. Hopefully, though, it has been just enough for us to sense that the triune nature of our God is not an encumbrance on Christianity but the very undergirding truth that makes it good, lovely, and beautiful. Nor is it some airy, impractical truth. It is something we can revel in every time we pray. Instead of nervously calling, "O Distant Creator," we can pray "Our Father," enjoying the Son's own relationship and privileges. And we can do so with the Son's own boldness, secure in him and enabled as he is by the Spirit.
Which God Will We Have?
It doesn't take the insight of a prophet to notice that hostility to the idea of a personal God is widespread and growing apace in the Western world today. Spirituality of a sort, fine. God? Not so much. Every author knows it: Write a book against God and you're on the fast track to securing a place on The New York Times best-seller list.
But might it just possibly be that the world is actually reacting against a certain sort of God: the concept of a loveless dictator-in-the-sky? Could such popular antitheism be the rumblings of an unknowing hunger for a better God? Certainly in my own experience, when I ask atheist or agnostic students to describe the God they don't believe in, I am usually treated to what sounds like a good description of Satan: a self-obsessed, merciless bully. And if God is not an ever-loving Father, eternally pouring out his Spirit of life and blessing on his Son, then their descriptions are probably pretty accurate. If God is not Father, Son, and Spirit, then he must be an eternally solitary being who has managed to get through eternity without love.
None of this should really surprise us. John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote that the fallen human mind is like "a perpetual factory of idols," in that we all persistently pervert the nature of God in our minds, imagining him to be less beautiful and good than he truly is. But today, given the widespread poverty of knowledge of God, it is especially important that we Christians are not heard to be speaking of "God" vaguely. Christians and non-Christians alike will instinctively shy away from such a being, suspecting a God more Devil than Father.
If we do not expressly proclaim Father, Son, and Spirit, then we do not expressly proclaim a God of love, the sort of God who would have any fellowship to share with us. The gospel we proclaim would then be essentially rootless, disconnected from the God whose gospel it is. And that must ultimately spell catastrophe: No church can survive for long on a superficial gospel, and few outsiders will be persuaded by one.
But if we are specifically and robustly Trinitarian in our talk of God, if we'll start with the Spirit-anointed Son who reveals his Father, then what a God we'll have to know and offer to the world! A God more delightful than human mind has dreamed, a kind Father who draws us to share his eternal love and fellowship, a God who is love.
Michael Reeves is head of theology for the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship in the United Kingdom. He is the author most recently of Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (InterVarsity Press).