There’s no getting around it: Our understanding of the Trinity is foundational to our Christian faith.
But is it so important that we need to spend time slogging through thousands of years of church history to learn more? Or can we just accept it as fact and move on?
Here at St. Jude Oak Cliff, we believe that God is eternally one essence in three persons. We also believe it’s extremely worthwhile to explore the historical and scriptural evidence for this definition.
Our goal in educating ourselves about the Trinity isn’t to make ourselves smarter sinners. We’re striving to become better worshippers. After all, the better we can talk about God in His fullness, about Him as triune, about each member of the Trinity, ultimately, it’s better worship.
Two historical requirements for the idea of the Trinity
Let’s dig in to the idea of the Trinity itself. Where did this idea come from? Is this some version of modern snobbery?
I’ve found that anytime I’m exploring aspects of the Christian faith, I want to see history on my side. If I find myself starting to form a new idea, and then settling into some kind of camp or tribe based on that idea, I want to make sure that I can see:
1. Development in church history toward that idea, or
2. That it doesn’t directly contradict 2,000 years of church history
If either of those statements can’t be proved (that is, if I can’t trace the idea’s development in church history, or it contradicts something in church history), than the burden of proof is on me to really prove this new position is sound.
What does church history say about the importance of the idea of the Trinity?
One of the beautiful things about the Trinity is that we’re saying the same thing today, that God is eternally one essence in three persons, that our brothers and sisters who came before us said 2,000 years ago.
But what we have always believed about the Trinity? And ultimately, what’s at stake if we lose this historical view of the Trinity?
Let’s look at two quotes, one from a more modern guy (Tozer), and one from a more ancient guy (Augustine). Both talk about what’s at stake if we lose our lofty view of God: If we fail to get a true and right understanding of God, and continue to worship that God, then ultimately we’re worshipping an idol (our own version or creation of God in our own mind.)
First, here’s A. W. Tozer, from The Knowledge of the Holy:
“Perverted notions about God soon rot the religion in which they appear. The long career of Israel demonstrates this clearly enough, and the history of the Church confirms it. So necessary to the Church is a lofty concept of God that when that concept in any measure declines, the Church with her worship and her moral standards declines along with it.
The first step down for any church is taken when it surrenders its high opinion of God. Before the Christian Church goes into eclipse anywhere there must first be a corrupting of her simple basic theology. She simply gets a wrong answer to the question, “What is God like?” and goes on from there. Though she may continue to cling to a sound nominal creed, her practical working creed has become false. The masses of her adherents come to believe that God is different from what He actually is; and that is heresy of the most insidious and deadly kind.”
In other words, if our understanding of what God is like is anything less than true, then it will work itself out in our worship in a detrimental way. At the end of the day, we are worshipping creatures, and we need to know that we’re worshipping a true and right understanding of God (to the best of our limited abilities).
This is not a new idea. We see this same idea earlier in our history, too. Augustine, from his work De Trinitate, 1.3.5:
“Thus let us enter together on the path of charity in search of [God] of whom it is said:
‘Seek his face evermore.’
This is the sacred and safe compact into which I, in the presence of the Lord our God, shall enter with those who read what I am writing...where we are investigating the unity of the Trinity, of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For nowhere else is the error more dangerous, the search more laborious, and the results more rewarding.”
This quote gets to the heart of why it’s valuable to study the Trinity in its fullness. Yes, it’s laborious; we have to use the right language and concepts, and be very precise in our language. But it’s incredibly rewarding as well, because God is the object of our worship and our prayers. He’s the giver and sustainer of our lives. He’s the alpha and the omega. He’s the author and perfector of our faith. There is nowhere you can go that He is not.
Tozer in that same book says “The most important thing about us is what we believe when we think about God.” Hence our need for accuracy, and why our beliefs about the Trinity need to be grounded in both scripture and history.
In our next post, we’ll dive into our definition of the Trinity. In the meanwhile, if you have any thoughts, questions, or comments, always feel free to leave them below. I’d love to hear from you.