Monday, April 18, 2011

Pondering the Trinity

The latest book reviewed at my book club was "Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion" by John Polkinghorne. It was an ambitious overview of a variety of topics where science and religion both inform the discussion, such as the nature of reality, human agency, divine action, human nature, the historical Jesus, the Trinity, time, evil, diversity of religions, bioethics, and eschatology. As you might imagine, Polkinghorne merely scratches the surface of each of these topics. However, it's valuable as an overview from someone who has both a background in physics and theology. At our bookclub, we only discussed a few of the chapters, but one chapter we spent a fair amount of time on was "Divine Reality: The Trinity."

As an Anglican priest, Polkinghorne affirms the doctrine of the Trinity. He compares the strangeness of the doctrine of the Trinity with that of quantum reality, noting that "the everyday habits of thought may also require some revision when one engages in the task of seeking to understand divine reality."

Later he states, "Just as the physicists had to struggle with the duality of wave and particle because that was the task that nature had imposed upon them, so the theologians have had to struggle with trinitarian insight because the encounter with the one divine reality is inexorably shaped in a way that demands triadic understanding. It forces upon us thinking stranger than we could have thought. The process begins in the pages of the New Testament, as its writers are driven to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ and the work of the Spirit in their hearts, though they know also that the God of Israel is 'the Lord alone' (Deuteronomy 6:4)."

The doctrine of the Trinity is indeed strange. We struggle to find apt metaphor because there is no equivalent way of being here on earth. On the one hand, traditional Christian belief regards polytheism as heresy, so Christianity rejects the idea of three Gods. On the other hand, modalism is also to be rejected as heresy (the belief that the three persons of the trinity are three ways of approaching God.) I was raised to understand the Trinity using the metaphor of the egg: yolk, white, and shell. What they each correspond to I have no idea.

Is the concept of the trinity so difficult to grasp because it is beyond human imagination and description? Or is it an incoherent idea which developed from melding the monotheism inherited from Judaism with the elevation of Jesus as divine by the early Christian community?

Polkinghorne believes that the distinct relationships between Persons in the Trinity are essential to the idea of God being love. Can there be love without an object to love? Does love only make sense in the context of relationship? In speaking of the Trinity, he writes "The concept of what one might even dare to call a 'divine society' casts light on that fundamental Christian assertion that 'God is love' (I John 4:16). A strongly monistic picture of deity would seem to imply a static understanding of the role of divine love in the intrinsic divine nature, along the lines of the unrelentingly narcissistic self-regard of the God of Aristotle."

How do you understand the Trinity? What metaphors have you heard and found helpful or dismissed as inadequate? Do you accept or reject the concept of the Trinity?

I'm attracted to the idea of the divine society and find that morality and concepts like love make much more sense in that context. However, I can't escape the utter befuddlement I experience in making sense of the doctrine of the Trinity and am curious about the history of the development of it.


  1. One of my funniest memories…

    A Sunday School teacher decided to use the Egg analogy (I was probably 7 or 8), so he asked me to bring in an egg, since we raised chickens. My dad gave me the biggest egg he could find and off I went to church.

    The teacher made the analogy and with a small bowl from the kitchen, triumphantly cracked it open…only to revel a double yolk!

    My father insisted he didn’t know…but I always wondered. My teacher was not his favorite person.

    The trinity developed as a concept for the reason you mentioned in your entry. The introduction of Christianity out of Judaism, to elevate Jesus yet maintain monotheism ended up with this contradictory idea.

  2. I have tried to come to grips with the idea/concept of the Trinity and I haven't been able to in some time. There are writers in the passages of the NT that clearly (to me anyway) draw line between Jesus being a man and distinctly not God while other passages seem to affirm Jesus as God in the flesh.

    So...I gave up understanding it. That is to say, I gave it to God - that I didn't understand it and I couldn't get it and if He expected me to believe it then I was sorry but I couldn't.

    I would like to ask Polkinghorne if he believes God exists "in time", "outside of time", or "both".

    If an idea of eternal persons is required for God to know what it is to love, then that forces God to exist "in time" because love is an action that occurs one moment to the next. I don't know if you can love something without the passage of time.

    Also in relation to "space" - If there is an awareness of a persons of God by God - then there is an awareness of a spacial dimension I think.

  3. DagoodS,
    That's a very funny story. Metaphors truly only take us so far. I didn't know you were a farm boy!

    Skeptic Heretic,
    you've raised some good questions. Polkinghorne does some creative imagining about how God might interact with humanity. I'll reread that section and respond to you later today.

  4. The idea of the Trinity is complex. I've heard that egg analogy. I'm not sure each part is supposed to represent a particular aspect of the trinity, just that the three parts make the whole. Just like the three persons of the Trinity make one God. I've also heard the analogy of three personalities of the Trinity. One of my pastors related it to himself. He is a father, he is a son and he is himself unto himself. Three distinct roles for one person. I'm not sure any of that makes sense. I kind of agree with your opening statements and DagoodS assessment.

  5. Hi,

    I've heard the description you mention,that God has to be more than one within one because he is love.

    When I heard that it was actually the first time it ever made any sense to me. I heard it from an Orthodox priest.

    Whether there can be love without an object of love... I don't think there can be. Love doesn't exist in a vacuum, right? I can't imagine a way for that to exist. Anyone?

  6. skeptic heretic,

    The short answer is that polkinghorne does believe God interacts in time. Some quotes:

    "On the other hand, a God who genuinely engages with time can be known through an unfolding story of historical disclosure. That knowledge will be conveyed through revelatory events and personal encounters, rather than through the communication of timeless truths in propositiona form."

    In speaking of the afterlife, he states, "The life of the new creation will be a temporal life, lived within the unfolding 'time' of that world to come, whose everlasting nature is the true meaning of the fulness of times."

    Is Too,
    I don't think love exists in a vacuum either. But I'm still not sure I can make sense of the Trinity.

  7. Questions about God's relation to time are a little hard to frame, since almost all of our language and mental models revolve around time. We can't (OK, _I_ can't) make a mental picture of action without time, but pretty plainly the creation of spacetime was such an action. (Most of the debates about predestination I've heard suffered from this framing failure.)

    I've heard the model of the trinity as the Lover/Loved/Love, and while it seems nice it also seems too easy. I don't understand my own nature all that well, and I'd be a little surprised if I understood God's that easily.

  8. Greetings DoOrDoNot

    On the subject of the Trinity,
    I recommend this video:
    The Human Jesus

    Take a couple of hours to watch it; and prayerfully it will aid you to reconsider "The Trinity"

    Yours In Messiah
    Adam Pastor