January 24, 2007

Experiencing the Trinity

2007 1503 page24 caprom 1963 to 1967 I served as pastor of a multi-church district in British Columbia, Canada, which included Prince George. Grace Dowy, a senior citizen of the Prince George church, reminded me frequently: “The Adventist pioneers did not believe in the Trinity.”
During the 1960s at an alumni weekend at Pacific Union College, W. R. French, a retired college religion teacher, was asked to present a short devotional for vespers. He took the occasion to present a one and a half-hour attack on the doctrine of the Trinity.1
Two or three years ago when I exited church from the Sabbath worship service, I found on the windshield of my car a pamphlet that had as its primary objective to demonstrate that the Trinity is not believable.
Let’s try to get our minds in gear by raising a few questions. Is the word “Trinity” in the Bible? The answer is a clear “No.” But there is a deeper question: Is the idea of the Trinity biblical? We will do more thinking about that in what follows. Is the Trinity a mystery? I see it as a mystery, but not an absurdity. Is the Trinity important? Well, if whom we worship is important, then the Trinity is worthy of our most careful attention.
The rest of this study falls under three heads:
The Trinity Means Three Persons
The prefix “tri” signifies three. We are acquainted with the words “trio,” “triangle,” “tricycle,” “triplets”—three musicians, a three-angled figure, a three-wheeled vehicle, three offspring born at the same time.
In the first chapter of the Bible is a statement that should startle us, but familiarity has bred inattention. We would expect to read: “Then God said, ‘Let me make man in my image, in my likeness’” (Gen. 1:26). Here in the earliest thoughts of Holy Scripture we have a hint of plurality in divinity. A careful perusal of other Old Testament passages will give us more suggestions of plurality in deity, but it is in the unfolding of salvation history in New Testament times that the picture of three persons becomes more lucid.
Imagine yourself at the Jordan River just as John the Baptist has immersed Jesus. “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’” (Matt. 3:16, 17).
2007 1503 page24Today in the Christian world there are millions of Oneness Pentecostal people who hold that God is one person who was the Father during the Old Testament era, the Son during the Incarnation, and the Holy Spirit subsequent to the Incarnation. In other words, God is a single person who has existed in three different modes in a time sequence.
However, the baptismal scene when Jesus was baptized is crystal clear that the three Persons of the Trinity were all involved contemporaneously on that occasion. Jesus the Son was immersed in the water; the Spirit descended on Him in the form of a dove; the Father spoke audibly from the sky. No wonder that Augustine of Hippo is on record as saying, “Go to the Jordan and you will see the Trinity.”
Sometimes we struggle with the personality of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps we have a tendency to think of this entity more as an influence, because He is without hands, feet, eyes, ears, nose, or mouth.
Decades ago I remember being in a Bible course in college when a passage from Acts convinced me of the personhood of the Holy Spirit. The narrative records that Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, sold a piece of property, pledged to give the entire proceeds to the Lord’s work, and then privately decided to withhold a portion of the money. When Ananias appeared before the apostles, Peter said, “‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God’” (Acts 5:3, 4).
One cannot tell untruths to an influence. One can lie only to an entity or entities with mental capacity and personality. Ananias had prevaricated to a person, God the Holy Spirit.
Arius (d. 336) was a theologian in the early Christian church who taught that “there was a time when the Son was not.” Early Seventh-day Adventist pioneers such as Joseph Bates and James White held a similar concept. In fact, from 1844 to 1890, very few Adventists believed in the eternity of the Son. Many have argued for the Father preceding the Son in time because biologically in life that is all we know.
However, it is interesting to note that in biblical passages the word “son” is employed frequently to describe character rather than biology. Here is a simple example: “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostle’s feet” (Acts 4:36, 37). Barnabas was a “Son of Encouragement” because of his generous character in giving to help others in the apostolic church.
The Trinity Means Three Eternal Persons
Of the documents that compose the New Testament the Gospel of John especially focuses on the divinity of Jesus. Hear again the first sentence: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The first statement stands in contrast to John 1:14: “The Word became flesh [emphasis supplied].” At a point in time the Word became human, was born into our race. But before that, in the beginning, He always was in existence with God the Father as a separate personality and was indeed Himself divine. There never was a time when the Son was not. “In the beginning was the Word.”
Striking also is John’s record of the tension between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in John 8:56-58. Jesus is speaking, “‘Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.’
“‘You are not yet fifty years old,’ the Jews said to Him, ‘and you have seen Abraham!’
“‘I tell you the truth,’ Jesus answered, ‘before Abraham was born, I am!’”
What is awesome here is that Jesus does not merely say that He existed before Abraham was born, but He claims equality with deity. He claims to be the one who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. He claims to be eternal and self-existent. No wonder that the Jews in angry denial of His claim picked up stones to throw at Him.
Adventism in the nineteenth century and in the early part of the twentieth century had been slow in accepting the eternal preexistence of Christ. W. W. Prescott had been commissioned to write a four-quarter Sabbath school lesson series for 1896-1897 on the Gospel of John. Diligent Bible student as he was, Prescott became convinced of the full eternal sonship of Christ and became a shaping influence on Adventist thought.2 Not insignificant has been the forceful sentence in Ellen White’s The Desire of Ages: “In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived.”3 Someone has wittily, but truly said, “Jesus was older than His mother and as old as His Father.”
Once the eternal preexistence of the Son has been fully established from Scripture, people do not generally seem to have difficulty thinking of “the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14).
On Sabbath, May 22, 2004, I was invited to preach the sermon during the worship hour at the rural Silver Creek Adventist Church in British Columbia. During the fellowship meal following the service, the Adventist woman who sat across from me told the story of how a Christian woman friend of hers had converted from Christianity to Islam because she was convinced that Christians are breaking the first of the 10 commandments by worshipping more than one god. The first commandment reads: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). How shall we view this challenge?
The Trinity Means One God in Three Eternal Persons
Mathematically, this seems confusing because three do not equal one, but there is a oneness beyond mathematics. Think about a couple of sentences in the prayer Jesus prays to His Father as recorded in John 17. “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one” (verse 11). Jesus is asking of His Father that the 11 apostles who are the nucleus of His church may be one. Obviously, He is not requesting that His followers become one person. He prays that they may have a oneness, a unity in purpose, mind, and character. The oneness He desires for them is compared to the oneness that exists between Himself and His holy Father in heaven. The oneness, the harmony He asks for the 11 is expanded later in the prayer to include all genuine followers of Jesus. Hear His words in verse 22: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.” The harmony between the Father and the Son is to be the example of the harmony that Jesus cherishes for Christians among themselves.
2007 1503 page24The ancient Greek and Roman gods were indeed many gods. They were infamous for being in conflict and warring with one another perpetually. In sharp contrast is the God of the Bible who exists as three Persons in oneness, harmony, love, and purpose. “God is love” (1 John 4:8) implies more than one Person in one God. God is one, but God is not alone. The Father loves the Son. The Son loves the Father. The Father loves the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Father. The Son loves the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Son. At the center of our universe is a community of love, harmony, and oneness.
With intelligence, with integrity, and with adoration we can worship as “trinitarian monotheists.”
Years ago George and Lillian Knowles, a husband and wife team, were directing an evangelistic field school in Vancouver, Canada, under the auspices of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, with numerous seminarians in attendance. I had heard that John Stott, the eminent, godly evangelical leader, was to be preaching in town on a Sunday morning while our evangelistic team was in Vancouver. I persuaded George Knowles to have us hear Stott as a group, and so on a Sunday morning in walked this cadre of budding Adventist preachers to discover what we could learn about preaching from a diligent practitioner.
It turned out to be Trinity Sunday in that Anglican church. Most of the service has receded from my memory, but I still have a few notes from the sermon. The impression of the message moved me to tears because here was a man sent from God who did more than talk about the Trinity. I experienced the Trinity as he spoke out of his own vital experience of knowing God in three eternal persons. To this date it is the only sermon I have ever heard preached on the Trinity, but how unforgettable.
In the April 2, 2001, Christianity Today John W. Yates III wrote an article commemorating John Stott’s turning 80 years old on April 27 of that year. I treasure these words in my heart:
“The day begins for Stott at 5 a.m. He swings his legs over the side of his bed and starts the day in prayer:
“‘Good morning, heavenly Father; good morning, Lord Jesus; good morning, Holy Spirit. Heavenly Father, I worship You as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Lord Jesus, I worship You, Savior and Lord of the world. Holy Spirit, I worship You, Sanctifier of the people of God. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.’
“‘Heavenly Father, I pray that I may live this day in Your presence and please You more and more. Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow You. Holy Spirit, I pray that this day You will fill me with Yourself and cause Your fruit to ripen in my life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, three persons in one God, have mercy upon me. Amen.’”
For decades, Stott has begun each day with a version of this Trinitarian prayer.4
1Woodrow Whidden, Jerry Moon, John W. Reeve, The Trinity: Understanding God’s Love, His Plan of Salvation, and Christian Relationships (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 2002), p. 14.
2Gilbert Valentine, “A Slice of History: How Clearer Views of Jesus Developed in the Adventist Church,” Ministry, May 2005, pp. 14-19.
3The Desire of Ages, p. 530.
4John W. Yates III, “Pottering and Prayer,” Christianity Today, Apr. 2, 2001, p. 61.
Allan Robertson is a retired pastor living in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada.