Some people seem to think that the doctrine of the Trinity is the result of a concerted effort by the theologians to make it difficult for ordinary men to understand the nature of God. So far from this being the case history shows that theologians tried every alternative they could, and the Trinity is simply man’s effort to say what he can about the deity in the light of Scripture and the history of Christian thought.
Moreover, it is a doctrine of practical importance for every-day living, and ought not to be relegated to the position of a piece of unimportant theological lumber, as so many Christians do.
Let us approach the doctrine the way the early church did. The first disciples of Jesus were not atheists, barren of religious convictions, but earnest Jews, who had been taught from their earliest infancy that there is, there can be, only one God. In the midst of a world which misunderstood and despised them, the Jews held proudly to their religious views, and in particular they stressed the fact that there is one God. “Hear, 0 Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord” was their cry, and though the Roman might keep him in subjection, though the Greek might enjoy a superior culture, yet the Jew managed to despise both in his heart, for were they not ignorant idolaters, believing in gods many, and did he not know that there is but one God ?
The first followers of Jesus had been nurtured in such a creed, and though when they attached themselves to Him they had to modify some of their most cherished religious beliefs they never felt called upon to modify that one. God is one, and we can never come near to an understanding of the Trinity unless we retain a firm hold on this fact.
Jesus of Nazareth.
As they companied with Jesus of Nazareth these men came to realize that here was no ordinary man. His personality was such that he drew men of all kinds to Him, and they found themselves well satisfied. It took a striking personality to draw and hold men like the twelve apostles in all their diversity.
And as they listened to Him teaching they felt that no one had ever taught like He did. There was something authoritative about this Man, and even the multitudes could recognize this. He made some extraordinary claims for Himself, as that He could forgive sin, and that one day He would judge the world. He said that if they came to Him they would find rest unto their souls, and when they came to Him they found that it was so, and indeed men all through the centuries have been finding that it remains so throughout all time. He called on men to give Him their deepest allegiance; to give it to Him personally, not to the cause He represented. He said that the fate of men at the last day would rest on their attitude to Him. And yet with it all there was no suspicion that he lacked balance. He appeared to them to be the sanest of men. But if He was justified in all this —?
They were there when the leper came and knelt before Him saying: “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean,” and they saw Jesus put out His hand and touch him saying, “I will; be thou clean.” And they saw the leper depart, completely healed. They were there when Jesus put clay on the eyes of the blind man and sent him to wash, so that he came seeing. They saw Him do many marvelous things and they came to realise that here was a power more than human.
Son of God.
There were many other things, and it all culminated in the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, each of them adding its quota to the thoughts they were thinking about Him. And when they pondered over all these things the facts forced them to the conclusion that when they had walked the hills of Galilee with Jesus of Nazareth, they had walked with God. It was a startling conclusion and I don’t think it was any easier for them than it would be for us. But the facts would not let them think otherwise.
If you had complained to one of them that he was now thinking of two Gods instead of one, I imagine that he would at first have had a little difficulty in understanding you, so firmly was he grounded in the conviction that there can be but one God. But then he might have answered something like this, “Of course there is but one God, there can only be One. But now I see that the nature of that God is richer and fuller than I had previously thought. The facts compel me to think of Jesus as God, but that does not mean that there are two Gods; it only means that Jesus belongs within the being of the one God.”
The Holy Spirit.
But the experience of the disciples did not finish with the ascension. The Holy Spirit came, and as they went about their task of living in the service of their risen Master, they became conscious of the fulfilling of His promise to them that He would send them another Comforter. Wherever they went, He was with them, guiding them, and giving them a strength that they had never known. And when they thought about this they saw that the Holy Spirit, too, must be considered as God. Again it did not mean that they must think of several Gods, it is simply that the one God is more complicated in His nature than they had previously thought. But after all, man’s nature is not simple, with its interrelation of body, mind, soul, and spirit, and it is no matter for surprise if God’s nature is likewise far from simple. So if the facts point us to a triune nature, the only thing to do is to bow to the facts.
It was not that the church accepted this view without adequate thought. The history of the early church shows us that again and again theories of the nature of God were produced which avoided the difficulties of the Trinity. But each time they were proved wanting, and in due course the whole church came to see that we must hold to the Trinity, for it alone is faithful to all the facts.
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, June 9, 1955.