July 1, 2018

So What?

Some people believe in the Trinity, some don’t. What difference does it make?

Gerald A. Klingbeil

Did you know it takes the sun 230 million years to orbit the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way?1 Obviously, nobody has yet seen it happen, so we have to rely on mathematical calculations.

Interesting fact number two: scientists estimate that there are about 100 billion stars in our galaxy.2 I always start worrying when scientists estimate things. They love to touch, test, count, measure, dissect, and document. So 100 billion is an estimate of immeasurability. It could be more; it could be less.

Allow me one more: If all the DNA in all the cells of one human being were uncoiled it would stretch 10 billion miles, roughly the distance from Earth to Pluto and back.3 DNA carries all our genetic information, and nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA.4

By now you may begin to wonder: Why do I need to know about the time it takes our sun to orbit the center of our galaxy? I don’t get 230 million years. And what do 100 billion stars (or more!) in our galaxy mean to us when we struggle to grasp the immensity of 7.5 billion people living on our planet? We can watch the population growth on the Internet,5 but it doesn’t become more real when we see the numbers rolling by. Except for biologists or geneticists, we may not really get the complexity of our DNA, and most of us live quite happily without really understanding these random facts that describe, in just a small way, the breadth and width of life, our galaxy, and the universe.

We can hear the Father’s love and the Son’s grace in the murmurs of the Spirit whispering to our hearts.

So what? is a valid question. So what about all those billions of years? So what about the immense distance my stretched-out DNA covers? So what about other stuff? So what about the Trinity and the personality of the Holy Spirit or the nature of Christ? How does this affect my life, my faith, my walk with Jesus?

Getting the Big Picture

We instinctively know that we cannot really comprehend God because He is beyond human imagination and explanation. Elihu, one of Job’s friends lecturing the poor man after his immense losses, exclaimed: “Behold, God isgreat, and we do not know Him; nor can the number of His years bediscovered” (Job 36:26). We realize that we cannot think God’s thoughts; that He is the wholly other. “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” writes Paul to the church in Rome. “Or who has become His counselor?” (Rom. 11:34).

Yet while we recognize that our minds are limited, God chose to reveal Himself through His Word, for He knows we yearn for answers. He knows that for hope to penetrate every fiber of our being we need to catch a glimpse of the big picture.

Why the Trinity?

I spent 15 years in the classroom training future pastors. I taught Hebrew and Aramaic; introduced my students to the Pentateuch, the historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament; dug deep into poetry and wisdom literature with them; offered them a glance of the history and culture of the world in which God chose to reveal His Word. I never taught systematic theology, but I often had to field questions about the nature of God, the Trinity, the nature of the Holy Spirit, and Christ Himself.

It’s a topic that is as relevant today as it was when Jesus taught His disciples. “Show us the Father,” pleaded Philip, one of the twelve. Jesus’ reply points us in the direction we should go when we seek to better understand the Godhead. “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works” (John 14:8-10). Pay attention, Philip; look and listen carefully. You see me, you see the Father.

So let’s think together about the So What? regarding the Trinity.7 Let’s focus on the big picture and remember the interconnectedness of every theological concept, ultimately affecting our lives. Let’s start right at the beginning. Let’s talk about love.

A Loud Voice About God’s Love

Without love there would be no Trinity. John asserts that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and for love to be love it must be relational. I can write a sonnet about my love for my wife; I can tell her that I love her 20 times every day, but this love will become real and tangible only when I relate to her lovingly. Words are precious; deeds are powerful. As the Father, the Son, and the Spirit act and speak, whether in relating to one another in the Godhead or to us their creation, they teach us about love.

They also offer a powerful example of how we should relate to each other in the body of Christ, and how we should relate to God. Their common engagement in the plan of salvation highlights God’s commitment to save a world in rebellion. Salvation was not an afterthought. The triune God was not caught by surprise, but chose humanity—through Christ—“before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).

A Tangible Illustration of Equality and Voluntary Submission

“In the beginning” involves all three members of the Trinity. Genesis 1:1 describes how God made the heavens and the earth. The Spirit hovered over the void and emptiness of an unformed world (Gen. 1:2); and, looking back, John 1:1-3 tells us that the living Word, Christ, was there as well. The Father, the Son, the Spirit are not just three different modes of divine expression. They play different roles in Creation and salvation; yet they are, at the same time,
one (Deut. 6:4). While Jesus was hanging on the cross, the Father and the Spirit were not disconnected. Engaged and involved, like Jesus, they suffered the same earthquaking moment of separation caused by our sins.

While on earth Jesus showed us the Father, and since His ascension, the Spirit pursues those who seek salvation. Jesus did not leave His church without a Comforter and Helper (John 14:16-18). I am always amazed at the seamless work of the Godhead. The Father sends; Jesus teaches and demonstrates on the cross divine grace; the Spirit reminds us of that grace and translates it into our lives so that we may be able to understand it more clearly (John 16:7-14).

We can hear the Father’s love and the Son’s grace in the murmurs of the Spirit whispering to our hearts. What could happen in our families, our local congregations, the world church, if we could emulate—in just a tiny way—the equality and voluntary submission of the members of the Godhead? The Father, the Son, and the Spirit don’t worry about order and sequence, visibility or leadership. They submit to each other to accomplish the grand mission of saving lost people.

A Lesson on Communication and Reach

I have three daughters who are very different. They share the same last name, the same genetic pool, and most experiences growing up. Yet all three are unique individuals. My wife and I have learned how to reach them more effectively by playing on our individual strengths and abilities to connect. Scripture employs many metaphors to capture the essence of God. There are moments we relate better to the Father or the Son/Brother. Sometimes we need a Helper or Comforter. The multiplicity of the Godhead represents another attempt to reach and transform
every heart.

Salvation From Ourselves

The biblical foundation for the Trinity reminds us that we desperately need grace. Only a divine Saviour can offer salvation. No angel or created being could stand in my place. As the Second Adam, Jesus demonstrated God’s love. As the eternal living Word He became my substitute. No other could do.

When we understand the personhood of the Spirit as an integral member of the Godhead, we realize that we cannot manipulate Him as a “thing” or a “force.” My car is a thing. While it has a powerful engine and an advanced transmission, I call the shots. I drive the car; I am behind the wheel.

Some Christians (Adventists included) who consider the Spirit an impersonal force love to sit in the driving seat. They pray for power; they claim miracles; they lead the way. The Trinity reminds us that we need to submit, that He is in control, and that we are part of something organic that is bigger than the sum of our individual beings. I am grateful for this object lesson.

Wrapping It Up

I love my wife. I cherish her care, commitment, creativity, and humor. I respect her mind and value her suggestions. Often, without speaking to her, I know exactly what she is thinking. (At least, I think I do!)

Our oneness, however, hasn’t reduced our individuality. We have many shared interests and enjoy doing many things together. We have invested nearly two decades of raising three daughters together. We enjoy team ministry. She loves following the British royal family, while I enjoy reading up on European soccer leagues. We are one, but also different.

Our triune God models perfectly the love relationship He envisions for His church. We submit to one another not because that’s the natural thing to do. We submit and engage with one another because that’s the divine thing to do.

In the end, our most telling answer to the Trinity So What? may well be this fact: salvation is a trinitarian program. God’s arrangement of that program for us involves clearly distinct roles for each of the Persons of the Godhead. We do ourselves no good by ignoring, confusing, or even dismissing the program’s mysterious, sophisticated, and complex character. God can work with us so much better, and accomplish so much more, when we welcome His revelation, understand His program, and cooperate with Him in all its revealed details. As we do so the perfect, glorious Father; the all-powerful, grace-giving Saviour Jesus; and the life-giving, infallibly guiding and comforting Spirit are truly free to perform Their awesome miracle in all of us.

  1. You can find more details here: starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/StarChild/questions/question18.html
  2. See www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Herschel/How_many_stars_are_there_in_the_Universe.
  3. Read more at ww2.kqed.org/quest/2009/02/02/a-long-and-winding-dna/.
  4. Connect to your DNA at ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/basics/dna
  5. Visit www.census.gov/popclock.
  6. Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  7. I am thankful to the following individuals who engaged with me about the So What? of the Trinity: Richard M. Davidson (Andrews University), Ricardo A. Gonzáles and Eike Müller (both Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies), Frank Hasel (Biblical Research Institute), Gerhard Pfandl (retired, Biblical Research Institute), and Peter van Bemmelen (retired, Andrews University).

Gerald A. Klingbeil, D.Litt., is an associate editor of Adventist Review who yearns to see more reflections of the community of the Trinity in the church he loves.