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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Trinity Matters

Let’s Be Simple

Here’s a simple thought.

But it will be the least simple of my simple thoughts, by far.

The Triune God is not just far superior to any of the polytheists’ gods, but also to any monolithic type of god. It is better that we serve one God in three Persons than that we claim God is a big singularity.


At first glance, you might not think so. You might think it’s easier and better to have to explain a God that’s just a big ‘One’ than to have to unravel what it means to say God is triune. You might think, for example, that Muslims and monotheist Jews and even Hindus have an easier job talking about God than Christians do.

Moreover, many Christians have a very difficult time explaining what one-in-three really means, in application to God.

Check that: every Christian does.

But what would we expect? After all, we’re talking about God, right? Would we expect that explaining him would be as easy as explaining the composition of water or the mechanics of bridge building, or the intricacies of brain surgery? He made all those things: how much more complex must be the nature of the One from whom every complicated thing originally sprang?

Still, it’s tempting to think it would be a lot easier to say, “He’s just a big One … a big consciousness out there … a really powerful entity we can’t understand but who made everything”. So perhaps we can understand why Christians sometimes shy away from going into the details of the Trinity: it’s the most complicated subject matter that exists. How are we going to do an adequate job of that?

In spite of the challenges of Trinitarianism, we need to realize there is something deeply problematic about the monolithic or Unitarian gods. The problem is this: that such a god, each being only one, must needs have a dependent relationship with the creation.

The Hindus Got It Right

The Eastern religious traditions understand this very well. For example, according to Hinduism, if God were all there were, then there would be nothing at all.

We could illustrate the point in this way. Imagine the world as made out of, say, water. Imagine not just our bodies and the surrounding objects, but even the air itself and the ground under our feet as made out of water. Then imagine that the whole world and universe were made out of the same. If all things were made out of any one thing, with no division between anything, in what sense could you speak of anything existing?

“Well,” you might say, “at least we could speak of ‘water’ ”. But no — for who is speaking? No differentiation between self and object exists, so no “you” exists either. And what does it mean to say, “That is water”, when “water” describes everything? There is no “that”, and no item differentiable from any other things as “water”.

Now take away the “H” in H2O.Then take away the “O”s. Let’s say that everything in the world is made up not of water (which is, after all a particular thing we only know by distinguishing from other things), but of quantity X.

Quantity X is the meaning of “god” in the monolithic-god systems of belief. In the beginning, there was only quantity X. But quantity X itself has no existence, since things can only be said to exist (like water exists) in distinction from something else. And nothing else was in existence, so neither did quantity X — the god — exist. He couldn’t exist, since nothing else existed to make the statement “the god exists” possible.

Hinduism solves this problem in the following way. Firstly, if the god exists, so must the physical world so as to make his existence a reality. The physical world is that thing distinct from god, so that the god can exist. Because this is necessary for divine existence, both the god and the material world are eternal. But because only the god can be the source of all things, and only the god can guarantee the eternality of things, all things must also derive from the god and be parts of the god. The physical world is thus a permanent projection out of the god, a “self” he has, so to speak, “cast out of himself” in order that existence is possible.

Now, I won’t go into what this does to us, human beings who are part of that physical world that is cast out from God necessarily for the god’s very existence. I will simply point out this: that Hinduism recognizes very well that if there is but one element to the nature of the god, he cannot be self-sufficient, but must entail his creation in his existence. Or to put it another way, he must depend on his creation for his existence.

So in speaking of Hinduism above, I was actually wrong to use the phrase, “in the beginning”. There was no “beginning” in Hinduism — there cannot have been — and no end either. If the god has always existed, so too the physical world itself must be eternal, and the wheel of suffering (samsara) that living in a physical world “cast out” from the god entails must be eternal from the past and into the future. There was no creation, just eternal reincarnation.

Taoism Too

Taoism recognizes the same problem, but tries to solve it in another way. Since all-one-thing cannot exist by itself, it posits the existence of two things: yin and yang, corresponding to the interplay of opposing forces: masculine and feminine, day and night, order and destruction, light and dark, life and death, and so on. Taoism is a form of dualism: two elements of the divine, both equal and indispensible.

Remember the Taoist symbol? It’s that thing like two tadpoles chasing each other’s tails, one white and one black. Both are equally balanced relative to each other. They have a sort of visual motion that suggests spinning or mutual generation; and they are encompassed by a circle, the representation of completeness and eternity. 

The upshot of this is that evil is necessary. In fact, neither side of the Tao can really be said to be “evil” at all — certainly not utterly evil — since its existence makes all existence possible. (In any case, Taoism does not really use the Western concept of evil.) And this is why the “evil” side of the Tao still has a dot in it: if we call it “bad”, it’s only because we’ve failed to realize how essential it is for the purpose of powering existence and of making statements about “good”. Thus, evil is necessary … and even desirable, in a sense.

Taoists know that if we eliminated the dark side from the pairing, they would be left with a circle full of — precisely nothing! It would be a blank. There might remain a circle, suggesting something was going on: but look inside the circle and you’d see nothing. In fact, Taoism itself would be predicating nothing of existence.

So the price of the Taoist solution is that evil is left perpetual, eternal and necessary … and indeed, not really evil at all.

How does that work for you?

Back to the Monotheists

Okay, but we’re not Hindus or Taoists, right? So for us, and for the Western traditions, this cannot be a problem.

Well, actually, it can, and a huge one. For the Eastern traditions have this major advantage over, say, the Muslims and the monotheist Jews: that they at least have some answer for a problem the Jews and Muslims do not even address, which is How could any god exist prior to the existence of creation, if existence itself depends on the existence of more than one thing?

In Islam and Judaism, as in Christianity (and as confirmed by science as well, of course) time is linear and the world began at a definite point in the past (call it the Creation or the Big Bang, if you like — it makes no difference to this problem). But prior to that, say all three traditions, God existed. But if God was the only thing that existed, then in what sense can we speak of him “existing” at all, since no other thing existed to provide any standpoint from which he could “exist”?

The Atheist might think at first that this helps his case against all the Western traditions. But really it doesn’t. It throws him back on a serious problem for secular science: how the world could “begin” without any cause or any element existing (hydrogen, helium, quark gluon plasma, a vacuum, etc.), since whatever element he posits will need its own explanation for existing. You can’t get something from nothing, says science. But if time is linear, then it would be the very thing secular science is insisting must have happened: nothing created something. And if that’s the explanation, it’s about as magical, speculative and absurd as the most extravagant fantasies of any religion. So far, it has also utterly failed both rationally and scientifically: it’s not supportable either by logic or evidence.

But for Judaism, Islam and other monotheist traditions, the problem is no less huge. God couldn’t have existed without an alternate standpoint from which his existence can be distinguished, and by definition, for the “one” god, there was no such standpoint. Thus their god cannot be self-existent. He is a creation-dependent god.

The Road Out of That

Yet the Torah says, “In the beginning, God …”. Before the creation existed, God existed. But of course, the Torah asserts the existence of the triune God, for it continues, “The Spirit of God was …”, and “Let us make man in Our image”. There wasn’t just one monolithic god entity: there was an internal distinction in the godhead: God was one, yet more than one.

The gospel of John tells us more. It says, “The Word was with God, and the Word was God” and “All things came into being through him”. A little further down, it identifies this person of the godhead: “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us”. Christ is the agency through which God the Father made the creation itself: when he says, “Let us make man …” he is speaking within the godhead, to the second person. Just so, Colossians tells us, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together”.

Because God was eternally One-in-three-persons, there was always a standpoint from which it is intelligible to speak of God “existing”. Not only that, but the creation itself is not a necessary component of his existing, but rather a contingent entity — God could have chosen not to create anything at all, and could still have existed eternally.

So why did he do it? The scripture tells us that it was a gratuitous effusion of love from within the Trinity: we were not necessary, not obligatory for God’s existence; we were created in love, by God, for fellowship with him and for his glory. It was a truly creative act: he did not have to do it. And it was truly loving: he did not need to make us at all. But our Creator loves us and wants us. He calls us his “children” and even “friends”. How like our triune God that is!

The Only Self-Existent God

We might well sing with Moses, “There is none like you, O Lord among the gods”. But then, there are no other “gods” for him to be “among”. The singular god of the nations is no more real than the dependent god of the Hindus or the multifarious gods of pagan lore. Only the triune God is real and self-existent. And we Christians have the only rational explanation of how God can have existed prior to the existence of any other thing. For the trinity is self-sufficient, not just now, but in the matter of pre-existence, prior to the universe as we now know it.

This is why his primary name is simply "I AM".  He is the self-existent one, the one of whom supremely and exclusively it can always be said that he is, and has always been, and always will be.  He is the only one who existed when nothing else existed, the ground of the existence of all things, and the only one whose existence is absolutely assured to all eternity.

Which makes it pretty important that we who know him are now "in him".

The Blessings of the Triune God

The upshot is this: however challenging it may be to explain the triune nature of God, it is a blessing of incalculable value. Only our God is self-existent. We were not created because he needed us, but because he wanted us. And we are not trapped in a world of eternal suffering or necessary evil, but have before us the prospect of a day when darkness and evil will be finally defeated and removed … and yet we, God and the universe redeemed by him shall still exist.

Meanwhile, open to us are all the avenues of knowledge. We are free to grow, discover and develop under the hand of a loving Father God, with his Son as our eternal Lord and his Spirit living within us. And all that we discover will inevitably find its reconciliation point in him. One day, we shall discover the truth; and it will all come perfectly together.

Until then, what we need to do is accept on faith what we cannot fully explain in human words: that God is, as he has said, the triune God. And we ought to bless and thank him that he is.

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