Reflections on the Trinity (1)

I have been pondering the doctrine of the Trinity lately. When I was a younger Christian I never really critically examined this belief, and when I was in college it gave me great difficulty because it seemed arbitrary to me. More recently, I have been struck by the beauty of this doctrine, and the profound implications that it has for epistemology and life. The other day during class I started jotting down some thoughts on the Trinity, and now I will post them here on my blog:

The doctrine of the Trinity should either be dismissed immediately as blatantly irrational, or it should restructure and govern all our thinking. It must either be discarded at the outset, or it must become the root and starting point for all subsequent thought. It is not one truth among other truths, passively waiting to be judged and evaluated by already existing and self-supported standards: it is a new standard, a new criterion, a new judge, breaking in and changing everything. For there is no standard by which God can be weighed outside of God Himself. The doctrine of the Trinity cannot be assimilated into an already functioning worldview, but it must challenge every worldview and call for epistemic revolution. God alone is ultimate, in the world of ideas as well as in the world of action.

The doctrine of the Trinity means that God is deeply mysterious and can only be known by revelation, for no one would have ever discerned by free speculation that God is three in one. If God, who is the first, the highest, and the most real thing, is deeply mysterious to us, and cannot be known apart from revelation, then how much more must we proceed with caution and humility in our knowing of lesser things? In comparison to the weight of God’s majesty, the entire universe is small and light, for He is necessary and eternal and infinite, while the universe is contingent and temporal and finite. If He is mysterious to us, and cannot be obtained by our free speculation, how can we trust free speculation in lesser matters? If we must lean against a wall to know what is most obvious and basic, how could we roam freely in our knowing of what is contingent and unnecessary? At every point in our thinking, we must steeply lean on God. When we wander away from Him, even for one tiny instant, it leads to chaos, because He is God and fills everything.

Trying to think apart from God is no less futile than trying to live apart from God. Just as the heart’s search for happiness can never be successful outside of God, so the mind’s search for truth can never be successful outside of God, because God himself is truth, just as God Himself is happiness. This is why modern Western philosophy, which began with Descartes and the Enlightenment by making autonomous reason absolute, has (according to its own principles!) degenerated into a kind of neo-paganism. Only God can be absolute! The history of secular philosophy, for all its pomp and pretension, is as bad at finding truth as a reckless hedonist is at finding happiness. It has not yet learned that only in submission to God can reality be meaningfully penetrated, for reality itself is God’s. When we breathe air, we are breathing God’s air; when we think thoughts, we are thinking God’s thoughts; when we so much as exist, we exist in God. “For in Him we live and move have our being.” To step away from God is to step into chaos and nothingness.

The doctrine of the Trinity means that ultimate reality is mysterious: but it also means that ultimate reality is a Person – in fact, a community of Persons! The first, the highest, the most real thing is personal. This boggles my mind! According to Christianity, ultimate reality (what is first and most basic) has a will, loves, and is beautiful. Ultimate reality is happy and sings! What a wonderful thought! What is ultimate is not a bland gray but a stream of color: not a “gentle indifference” (cf. Camus) but a fierce love: not a neuter force but a masculine will: not a cold darkness but a radiant joy! This moves me to worship. It is so incredibly beautiful that I instantly know it to be true, for something so beautiful cannot be false. To have seen God, to have beheld His majesty – once a person has done this, what could they ever desire again? To know Him is life and light and certainty and happiness. “Better is one day in your courts than thousands elsewhere.”

9 Comments

  1. Noah D.

    Thanks, G-dog! I have had very similar issues with the idea of the Trinity starting at a young age. Your insights are a wonderful reminder to me that even in a mystery, we can see such immense beauty that is personal to the extreme. I suppose that no matter how far we think we can go in understanding the Trinity, it will always leave us at the place of deeper wonder which is exactly where we should always be, in awe of our mysterious and beautiful creator. Always wonder.

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  2. Gav – Your thinking is, as always, wonderful to read. I was wondering the other day, though, whether and to what extent it is admissable to use the Trinity as a model for our thinking – you know, “The Trinity functions in this way, therefore we’ll resolve this theological problem in exactly the same way.” Given the mystery of the Trinity, does that put limits on its practical usefulness for doing theology? Maybe that’s too pessimistic, I don’t know. Do you have any thoughts?

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  3. Gavin Ortlund

    Thanks for the feedback, both of you! Eric, my post was a kind of “thinking out loud,” so I don’t have settled convictions on this, and I am still in process. I do think people can abuse the concept of mystery, and this certainly happens in our post-modern times. Where God has clearly spoken, to claim mystery and uncertainty is wrong and destructive. However, at the macro-level of thinking and living, I do think its helpful to consider that ultimate reality is mysterious and personal. I think this provides a framework out of which to think about everything else. The goal is epistemic humility and relational knowing, not skepticism or irrationalism. Augustus Strong has a great section in his Systematic Theology at the end of his discussion of the Trinity where he discusses how it relates to other doctrines and life in general. He says that Trinity is necessary to proper theism, redemption, revelation, and life. Barth says something similar. Again, I am still in process on this, so I am open to correction if you have any!

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  4. Ray Ortlund

    Thank you, brothers.

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  5. Noah D.

    G, I just read posthumously published article by Jonathan Edwards on the Trinity. It is rather surprising and not particularly orthodox, or helpful for that matter. I think Edwards may have tried to go too far in understanding the great mystery. http://www.americanpresbyterianchurch.org/edwards'_essay.htm

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  6. Gavin Ortlund

    hey noah, thanks for the link. I had to read a slice of that work by Edwards last year for a church history class, and I must say I found it a difficult read. I am not sure I understand Edwards very clearly. Where in particular do you think Edwards is in error?I will say that most of the arguments I have heard for the Trinity have not seemed very convincing to me. I think the best and wisest argument for the Trinity is simply that God has revealed Himself as Triune in Jesus and the Bible, so we believe it!GRO

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  7. Ray Ortlund

    I agree, Gavin. And, in a way, I would expect it to be so. The higher the mystery, the less amenable to human speculative analysis — but the greater resource.

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  8. Noah D.

    I completely agree, my good man. It seems to me that Edwards was saying, although not particularly clearly to a modern reader, that if something can be “imagined” perfectly (which we are unable to do) then it comes into existence somehow. God, perhaps in self-awareness, imagined himself which lead to the existence of the 2nd person of the Trinity (I am not sure how this works or even if I understand it correctly at all, but commentators that I just read seem to be saying the same thing). From the perfect love and affection and adoration that the first and second persons have for each other flows the Holy Spirit. I am not sure what I think about the source of the Holy Spirit in this theory (doesn’t C.S. Lewis teach something quite similar?), but I see the creation of the 2nd person as beyond highly speculative and unconvincing. Of course, I could be way off on my understanding of Edwards. I am no intellectual by any means.

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  9. Gavin Ortlund

    Noah, thanks for the great thoughts. Very intersting. I am taking a class on Edwards in the fall, so I hope we talk about his doctrine of the Trinity in it!You da man.

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