Let’s start with a blank sheet of paper. Better yet, let’s start with an example of starting with a blank sheet of paper.
When in the sixth century the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of God, he described him as riding on a flying chariot surrounded by storm clouds and lightening, being carried by four “living creatures”. Each creature had four faces – those of an eagle, a lion, an ox, and a man – and four wings with hands under them, and below each creature were two crossed wheels covered… with eyes. “Wherever the spirit wanted to go, [the creatures] went, and the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels”, and Ezekiel said that the sound of their wings was “like the sound of many waters, like the sound of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army”.
He said that above the creatures’ heads “there was the likeness of an expanse, shining like awe-inspiring crystal” – which was the bottom of the chariot, “[a]nd above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance”. Above what appeared to be God’s waist seemed to be gleaming metal and enclosed fire, and downward was just fire, and it was all surrounded by the brightness of a rainbow, as it were, after a storm.
But then, after beggaring our imaginations with all this fantastical description, when it came to actually describing God, Ezekiel was completely lost for words. All he could say was not what God was like, but only what his glory was sort of like: “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking” (Ezekiel 1).
This was no tame deity. (No wonder the second of the Ten Commandments was to not make a graven image or any kind of idol.)
All the prophet was able to do was to listen.
In similar fashion, when this God came down from his throne and walked on the earth, when he did many fantastic, awe-inspiring miracles, the culmination of his revelation came through words.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1–5, 14)
That means we cannot see him unless we listen. For example, we can look at the night sky and see nothing but a bunch of pretty lights, or we can listen to what astronomers say, and look at the night sky and be utterly transfixed.
Now let us return to that blank sheet of paper. God has revealed something much more bizarre and otherworldly than Ezekiel’s vision: he is triune. He is at once three distinct persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is both God and the Son of God:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. […] For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily. (Colossians 1:15–17; 2:9)
How do we understand this? Is there anything analogous – anything like the logos? Perhaps we could compare him to the spectrum of visible light. Red, blue and green are each perfectly unique and distinct, yet a child cannot learn one without learning the other two (and the rainbow of colors they create) – all of which compose white light. Similarly, when Christ was revealed, all three persons of God were present, such as at his baptism:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9–11)
Likewise at the end of his earthly ministry he told his disciples:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19–20)
But how do we understand this?
Is This Rational?
Some argue that the doctrine of the Trinity is irrational, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, a careful examination of it reveals deep resonance with the very nature of rationality itself.
Many analogies fall short. Light, after all, doesn’t have rational or emotional capacities. Other popular metaphors create confusion. For example, to compare the three persons of God to a man who can simultaneously be seen as a farmer, a mayor, and a father is actually illustrative of a heresy called modalism. “This analogy is very deficient because there is only one person doing these three activities at different times,” says theologian Dr. Wayne Grudem, “and the analogy cannot deal with the personal interaction among the members of the Trinity” (Systematic Theology, pp. 241). He says similar problems arise with comparing the Trinity to the three forms of water (liquid, solid, and gas).
We have to dig much deeper. One of the best analogies comes from our experience of three dimensions in life. It is incredibly vast but also wonderfully simple: although each of the three dimensions can be coherent and exhaustive in and of itself, the three only exist (even in our minds) as a single phenomenon. For example, imagine a two-dimensional mathematical plane. We imagine ourselves floating above the plane or below it or even passing through it; regardless, our vantage point is always three dimensional space. The same is true when thinking of a line or of any other form of math – regardless of whether it is translated geometrically. No one is capable of thinking in anything but three dimensions.
Yet at the same time, our three-dimensional thought acts as a paradigm from which we begin to understand the rest of geometry. For example, a three-dimensional cube can be perfectly translated and studied on a two-dimensional plane, such as is represented by drawing with a pencil on a sheet of paper. Then that very same information can be translated into a linear sequence – for example, into 1s and 0s. In fact, a single two-inch line segment contains just as many mathematical points on it as would be contained within a cube the size of the Milky Way galaxy. Ad infinitum: each of the three dimensions provides the foundation for other mathematical truths.
Although the three dimensions cannot necessarily be called rational, they are both inseparable from and required for rational thought. That is to say that math is similar to the context for any and all communication and language, because those phenomena are entirely dependent upon patterning. For example, the pattern of black symbols you are staring at was translated into binary and back again – for numbers are nothing more than words – and several overlapping patterns of meaning are built with them. Mathematics and language go hand-in-hand.1
Furthermore, the three dimensions of rational thought are not just limited to pure math. We can find similar interaction in the semantics of any other language. Consider, for example, how the concepts of freedom, knowledge, and determinism weave together. Although each concept is perfectly unique and coherent in and of itself, we cannot define one without having the other two in context. For where is there freedom without the knowledge of options? And where is there knowledge without a foundation of non-negotiable (pre-determined) truth? Perhaps we could even put the concepts in a Cartesian coordinate system where x would be polarized by freedom/slavery, y would be polarized by knowledge/ignorance, and z would be polarized by determinism/randomness.
So even if we cannot clearly articulate our thoughts, those thoughts will be, so to speak, “three-dimensional”. Just as someone can be perfectly fluent without knowing the difference between a noun and a verb, much less any rules of grammar, so also we can be abundantly rational without knowing the parameters of language.
All that is simply to say that the Trinitarian notion of unity in diversity – the revelation that God is three eternal persons – is abundantly, beautifully, and astonishingly rational.
Are You Listening?
The most common attribute the Bible ascribes to God is uncommonness. He is unusual. His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are his ways our ways (Isaiah 55:8–9). He is set apart and altogether “holy”. That’s the Bible’s word for the majestic and awesome otherness of God.
And yet as holy as God is, the Bible says that he was also fully revealed in the seemingly very common person of Jesus Christ. Many look at him and see nothing but a nice religious teacher. But if you listen – and ask and seek and knock – you can see “the bread of life”, “the light of the world”, “the door”, “the good shepherd”, “the resurrection and the life”, “the way, the truth, and the life”, “the vine”, “the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end”, the very logos of God (John 6:35, 8:12, 10:9, 10:11, 11:25, 14:6, 15:5, Revelation 21:6).
The good news is that the triune God has through Christ made a way for us to be reconciled to him. We need reconciliation because he is holy and we are not. In particular, that means that he is righteous and we are not. And for his justice to stand – for that word to have any meaning – someone has to pay the penalty for our wrongs.
He created the world and he loves the world, so he has paid the price. He has provided the intermediary. “Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one” (Galatians 3:20). That means that though the wages for our sin is death, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Look to him, and be saved: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40).