Practical Meaning of the Trinity

Few teachings of Christianity seem at further remove from Christian living than the understanding of God as triune. The waters run deep here, and dark as well. Most of us prefer to wade in the shallows where the waters are clear and flows gently. Though most confess the mystery of this way of seeing God (some scorn it as unintelligible and needlessly arcane), few are willing to test themselves by grappling with it.

No one can deny the mystery of Christianity’s triune God. After all, if God is truly God, that is, the source of and the supreme intelligence that designed and implemented all that is (including humanity), that God escapes the clutches of our reason and must make known to us who he is (revelation) if we are to know him, should not surprise us. It is what we should expect.

Thus, the Christian God is shrouded in mystery. Mystery here does not mean a puzzle we haven’t yet solved or acquired the information to solve but may one day do so. Rather, mystery means that which we would never imagine or figure out on our own. Unless God reveals himself to us, we would never know him. That he has done so, means that we have what me might call a “working” knowledge of God. We know enough of who he is that our knowledge is reliable and his character trustworthy, even when this does not seem to be so. We do not and cannot know all there is to know of God (eternity isn’t long enough for that!). As one theologian put it, God is hidden even in his revealing himself.

We are right then to be humble in thinking and speaking about God. However, we ought to be willing to go as far as what this triune God has told us about himself will take us. And it takes us far enough to at least be able to describe some of the contours of this divine mystery in a way that keeps us close to his reality. Three of the most important descriptions of the mystery of God’s triune being are:

1. That God is always and at the same time the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
2. God is the network of mutual relations between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
3. Each member of the trinity is involved in the work of the others.

These, I say again, are mysteries. We know them only because God has showed them to us. We can grasp the descriptions but not how they are possible. These are the deep waters. It is worth the effort to swim in them, though, because they also bear profound practical meaning for our life as Christians.

As you doubtless know, the Bible, like the rest of ancient civilization, assumed rather than argued for the existence of their deity, deities, ultimate powers and forces. The existence of the biblical God became the baseline from which the early church sought understanding rather than a datum to be proved. It took five centuries of reflection and debate to flesh out the view of God embryonically present in the Bible into our ecumenical understanding of the triune God we hold today. From this ecumenical understanding of the tri-unity of God we can derive practical truths about the divine-human relationship vital to faithful living. Among them are the following.

First, this understanding of God allows us to affirm and trust his reality, his presence with us, and his life in us.

Father (God is There)
God is always and at the same time: Son (God is Here)
Spirit (God is Near)

Our lives are based on God (the Father), accompanied by God (the Son), and animated through God (the Spirit). On, by, and through – these prepositions span the length, breadth, width, and depth of life. This is part of what we confess when we affirm the answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism: “What is your only comfort in life and in depth?” Answer: “That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
A confident trust, a courageous willingness to risk, an indefectible loyalty, and a joyful freedom befall those who have entrusted their life to this God. It doesn’t get more practical than this!
A second practical insight from the tri-unity of God fleshes out a profile of the kind of life and relationships following this God entails. In both testaments God’s speaking (Genesis 1) and very being as Word (John 1) give us a decisive clue. Following out that clue, we can say that our relation to God involves:
Communication – Word Spoken (the Father)
Communion – Word Internalized (the Son)
Community – Word Shared (the Spirit)

The Father speaks to us. He initiates the relationship with gracious outreach to us. This relationship involves communication. Truth can be grasped and spoken about with God and one another.

This divine Word is never merely an external word but rather effects that which it declares. It becomes the internal basis of our lives. Jesus is the Father’s Word incarnated, that is fully internalized in a human life.

The Spirit internalizes and actualizes God’s Word in us, as he did in Jesus, making this Word – both Jesus and God’s spoken Word to us – the commonality and basis of our community across all other lines and obstacles that might divide or create enmity between us.

Once again, the fullness of our lives are not only wholly encompassed but knitted together on the triune loom of the Father’s Word, enacted by Jesus, and shared with us by the Spirit. This gracious action is wholly God’s – he initiates and takes the first step toward us at every point. His “wooing” us is what wins us and enables us to embrace the love we would otherwise have never known much less experienced!

Again, it doesn’t get more practical than this.

A good deal more could and should be said about all this. But that is for another time and setting. What we have said will suffice for today.


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