The Trinity isn’t intended to be a math equation. It’s a biblical concept, summed up in a coined word, that attempts to express how a transcendent God can be imminently and marvelously present with us.
The Trinity isn’t an ontology to be pondered as much as a Reality to be celebrated and experienced.
An article on the Trinity in a theological journal probably can’t completely shirk the responsibility of explanation. Yet our examination of Emmanuel in this article will focus more on how God is with us in a myriad of ways, than on who Emmanuel is in his essence.
One of Jesus’ Trinitarian moments
One of the more Trinitarian prayers in the Bible is John 17, where the Son prays to the Father. Within the prayer Jesus prays for protection from the unholy spirit as well as for the sanctification of his followers, which happens via the Holy Spirit. How ironic that almost anything that might be said about the Trinity in any detail could lead to charges of heresy from some part of the church… while in one of the more obviously Trinitarian expressions of Jesus’ life, he prays for the unity of his followers.
In the spirit of Jesus’ prayer, then, here is how I usually taught about the Trinity, whether to confirmation students in middle school, new believers and avid seekers, or adults whose faith sought further understanding. From the outset, I expect God to be bigger than I am. Any god worthy of the name certainly has to be beyond my mind’s capacity to comprehend him in precise detail. If I fully understand the Almighty, it can only be because I’ve whittled him down to my size. Humility, then, is the name of the game. Concepts of God that stretch my mind’s capacity, rather than casting doubt on the subject, for me point to the likelihood of authenticity.
God had chosen to reveal himself to us through the words of Holy Scripture as three in one, or triune. While this inevitably raises more questions than we can answer, the concept of three-in-one is not foreign to us.
- In science, the triple point of water is where at the right temperature and pressure H2O exists simultaneously as solid, liquid, and gas – one compound simultaneously in three phases.
- In art, three intersecting circles reveal a central point that is part of each unending circle simultaneously – one area simultaneously in three circles.
- In nature, a single egg consists of white, yolk, and shell – one egg simultaneously in three parts.
- In relationships, I am a father to my four children, a son to my two parents, and a husband to my one wife – one person simultaneously in three roles.
As an employee of John 17, working full time to see Jesus’ prayer answered in my home town of Tucson, AZ, I stumbled upon an interesting observation in working alongside congregations of various denominational and ethnic backgrounds. Some seem most at home with God the Father, working passionately in areas of justice. Some seem most at home with God the Son, working passionately in areas of evangelism and discipleship. And some seem most at home with God the Spirit, working passionately in areas of signs and wonders. Who’s right? Praise the Lord, we worship a God who is simultaneously all three, bigger than any one part of the Body of Christ. Instead of the Western either/or mindset that so regularly tempts us to pick sides where no sides are intended, we need the more biblical Hebraic mindset of both/and. God’s very essence is a both/and essence: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simultaneously.
How is Emmanuel?
A better question than “Who is Emmanuel” is “How is Emmanuel”; in other words, how is God with us? How is Emmanuel? Let me count the ways… Three, to be exact.
Philosophically-minded folks may stumble over the ontology of a three-in-one God, but the more common vexing question today is not “How can there be one God in three Persons?” but “How can there be a good God when there’s so much human suffering?” Perhaps part of our problem has been attempting to address those two questions in isolation from one another. This may be yet another example of both/and rather than either/or. By pairing the question of the nature of God with the question of theodicy, perhaps we can experience Good News at some new levels.
God-As-Father with us
How many times in the history of humanity do you suppose a parent has said to their suffering child, “I wish I could take your place?” Probably at least once for every child ever born.
It’s much harder to watch someone you love suffer than to suffer yourself. I think the last time either my wife or I were hospitalized was at the birth of our last child over 19 years ago. This Spring we’ve both had the experience. Without a doubt, I know we both would say it was way more worrisome when our spouse was sick in the hospital than when it was us.
God as Father knows the pain of watching one you love suffer…