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Can We Explain the Trinity?

My Favorite Image for the Greatest Mystery

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

One of the reasons Jonathan Edwards’s vision of God has proved so helpful in my worship and ministry is that he does, and he doesn’t, “explain” the Trinity.

When he has gone further in his “explanation” of the Trinity than many have gone, he admits, “I am far from asserting this as any explication of this mystery that unfolds and removes the mysteriousness and incomprehensibleness of it” (Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith, 139).

Edwards dares to climb in the mountain ranges of the Trinity, because he believes “the Word of God . . . exhibits many things concerning it [more] exceeding glorious and wonderful than have been taken notice [of]” (Writings, 139).

Precious Thoughts of God

In other words, he doesn’t think we honor truth by ignorance of it. He does not think that increasing our knowledge decreases God’s mystery. He is not one of those who believes that the majesty of God is magnified by repeating how little we know of him — by hunkering below the cloud-line and speaking vaguely about mountain peaks we can’t see.

My own opinion is that there is something fishy about saying our wonder and worship of God become greater as we focus on how little we know of him. One gets the impression that such “wonder” and “worship” are vague esthetic feelings on the brink of a void, rather than what we meet in the Psalms: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!” (Psalms 139:17).

Edwards believed that true learning increases both knowledge and mystery. The more knowledge we have of God from the Bible, the more of his reality we grasp, and the more mysteries we see. The benefit of increasing mystery this way (rather than by means of preserving ignorance) is that what we do know gives direction to what we don’t know. We do not wonder if the mystery we don’t grasp contains a sinister God, because what we do grasp directs us away from that speculation.

Small Mysteries of Ignorance

Edwards explains with the analogy of a child:

When we tell a child a little concerning God, he has not an hundredth part so many mysteries in view on the nature and attributes of God . . . as one that is told much concerning God in a divinity school; and yet [the divinity student] knows much more about God. (Writings, 139)

He clarifies further by pointing to how the New Testament increases understanding of the Trinity, while at the same time turning up more mysteries.

Under the Old Testament, the church of God was not told near so much about the Trinity as they are now; but what the New Testament has revealed, though it has more opened to our view the nature of God, yet it has increased the number of visible mysteries and things that appear to us exceeding wonderful and incomprehensible. (Writings, 139–140)

So, when Edwards guides us above the usual cloud-line of understanding, he is giving a kind of “explanation” of the Trinity. But it would be silly to think that he, or I, imagines that by seeing more, we have shrunk the majesty of God. No matter how far you climb into infinity, the distance above you remains endless.

Words: Inadequate and Indispensable

Edwards also was aware that human words are only pointers toward reality. Statements about God are not God. Words, and the reality they represent, are radically different things. When Paul was caught up into heaven and given glimpses of heavenly realities, he said he “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:4). Our language is insufficient to carry the greatness of all that God is.

But the inadequacy of language is only surpassed by its indispensability. Inadequate does not mean useless. Language may not carry all there is, but what it carries can be true and valuable — infinitely valuable. To be sure, “we know in part and we prophesy in part. . . . We see in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:9, 12). All human language about God, even Scripture, is baby talk. John Calvin said, “God lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children” (Institutes, 1.13.1).

But biblical baby talk is sweeter than honey, and more to be desired than gold (Psalm 19:10). Oh, how precious is the baby talk of God! It is not like grass that withers or flowers that fade. It abides forever (Isaiah 40:8). It is like “silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6).

In other words, Edwards’s “explanation” of the Trinity is highly refined baby talk — like all sermons, and theology books. But oh, how helpful it can be! So, keep in mind that it is a human effort to draw inferences from hundreds of passages of Scripture, and then construct with words a conception of how God is one God in three persons, who are all divine, and equal in essence and dignity, but have different roles to play in the great work of redemption.

I recall an unbeliever who, at the request of his friend, came to hear me preach. His friend brought him to me after the service, and his first question was about the Trinity. “It makes no sense. Can you help me understand?” I gave him a two-minute summary of Jonathan Edwards’s conception. He said (something like), “That is the most helpful thing I have ever heard.” I said nothing exhaustive. There was no claim to remove mystery. There was simply a human, verbal expression of how one might conceive of the Trinity. One barrier to faith was loosened.

The Trinity We All See

Readily visible below the cloud-line in the Bible is the truth that there are three divine persons who are one God. For example, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:1, 14). The Word “was” God and the Word was “with God.” Both God, and with God. Then, fourteen verses later, these two designations “Word” and “God” become “Son” and “Father.” And the Word/Son becomes “flesh” — truly human, the God-man. And “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19).

And this God-man, the incarnate Son of God, spoke of the Holy Spirit as a distinct (third) person. “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things” (John 14:26). “If I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. . . . When the Spirit of truth comes . . . he will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:7, 13–14). Jesus is not speaking about a force, but a person — who teaches. And this person is distinct from the Son of God, for Jesus speaks of him as “another” person. And he is distinct from the Father, for “the Father will send” him.

Yet this person, the Holy Spirit, is also one with the Son of God. Jesus identifies the coming Helper like this: “You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:17). Then in verse 25, he says, “I have spoken to you while I am still with you.” In other words, the Holy Spirit is one with the Son.

Paul points to the same thing:

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. (Romans 8:9–10)

“The Spirit of God” and “the Spirit of Christ” and “Christ” and “the Spirit” are used in such a way as to treat them as, in some sense, one. If you have the one, you have the other.

From these, and many more passages, the church has taught for two thousand years that God is one God, and exists in three persons who are all God. This is the Trinity. That much has been clear below the cloud-line where most Christians can see it with joy and amazement, if not with full comprehension.

The Trinity According to Edwards

Now, when Edwards penetrates through the cloud-line and pushes farther up the mountain of Trinitarian truth, he attempts to provide a conception of the Trinity that is true, rooted in scriptural language, intelligible, and helpful, even while making no pretense to fully comprehend the mystery. Let’s look first at his summary statement of how all three persons are one God, yet each a person.

The Father is the Deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated, and most absolute manner, or the Deity in its direct existence. The Son is the Deity generated by God’s understanding, or having an idea of himself, and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the Deity subsisting in act, or the divine essence flowing out and breathed forth, in God’s infinite love to and delight in himself. And I believe the whole divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the divine idea and divine love, and that therefore each of them are properly distinct persons. (Writings, 131)

Edwards may have technical philosophical reasons for using the words “subsisting” and “subsist” instead of “existing” and “exist” (emphasizing independent reality upholding other realities rather than stemming from any), but for our simpler purposes here, you can just read, “The Father is the Deity existing in . . .” etc.

So, the Father is unoriginated, absolute. (Don’t hear in the word “unoriginated” the implication that the Son and the Spirit have a beginning. They don’t. They “originate” eternally, as we will see.) The Son is the Father’s “idea” or “understanding” (or image) of himself. And the Spirit is God’s love to, or delight in, himself. Now, admittedly, without saying more, that seems like a deficient view of the Trinity, because it sounds like the Son is an impersonal idea, and the Spirit is an impersonal emotion. But Edwards says more, much more.

Notice immediately that this conception may not be so far-fetched since the Son of God is called in John 1:1 God’s “Word” or “logos,” which can mean “reason or thought,” which is not so far from “idea.” And the Holy Spirit is, obviously, a Spirit. Keep in mind that the entire Godhead is called spirit in John 4:24. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” So, God, who is spirit, has a Spirit, who is distinct from God the Father because he “intercedes” to the Father (Romans 8:27) and “searches . . . the depths of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10). And might not this Spirit of God, who is spirit, be God’s essential nature, the Spirit of love (1 John 4:8)?

The Son: God’s Understanding of God

But we need to let Edwards clarify what he means by calling the Son the “understanding or idea” that the Father has of himself — and has had from all eternity (so that the Son is coeternal).

If it were possible for a man by reflection perfectly to contemplate all that is in his own mind in an hour, as it is and at the same time that it is there, in its first and direct existence; if a man had a perfect reflex or contemplative idea of every thought at the same moment or moments that that thought was, and of every exercise at and during the same time that that exercise was, and so through a whole hour: a man would really be two. He would be indeed double; he would be twice at once: the idea he has of himself would be himself again. . . .

As God with perfect clearness, fullness, and strength understands himself, views his own essence (in which there is no distinction of substance and act, but it is wholly substance and wholly act), that idea which God hath of himself is absolutely himself. This representation of the divine nature and essence is the divine nature and essence again. So that by God’s thinking of the Deity, [the Deity] must certainly be generated. Hereby there is another person begotten; there is another infinite, eternal, almighty, and most holy and the same God, the very same divine nature.

And this person is the second person in the Trinity, the only begotten and dearly beloved Son of God. He is the eternal, necessary, perfect, substantial, and personal idea which God hath of himself. And that it is so, seems to me to be abundantly confirmed by the Word of [God]. (Writings, 116–117)

To grasp what Edwards is trying to communicate, we have to expand our conception of the word “idea” — to put it mildly. Edwards is trying to help us see that God’s “idea” or “understanding” or “image” of himself is so perfect, and so full of all that God is, as to be the living reproduction, or begetting, of God himself. Therefore, God the Son is coeternal with the Father and equal in essence and glory.

To support this claim, he points to biblical texts that describe the Son as the form and image and imprint and word of God.

Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. (Philippians 2:6)

In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4)

He is the image of the invisible God. (Colossians 1:15)

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. (Hebrews 1:3)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

“The Scripture teaches us,” says Edwards, “that Christ is the logos of God [John 1:1]. It will appear that this logos is the same with the idea of God, whether we interpret it of the reason of God, or the word of God” (Writings, 120). With these and many other Scriptures, Edwards shows that his conception of the Son as the Father’s “idea” of himself is not unwarranted.

The Spirit: God’s Delight in God

Edwards turns then to focus on the Holy Spirit.

The Godhead being thus begotten by God’s having an idea of himself and standing forth in a distinct subsistence or person in that idea, there proceeds a most pure act, and an infinitely holy and sweet energy arises between the Father and Son: for their love and joy is mutual, in mutually loving and delighting in each other. Proverbs 8:30, “I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.”

This is the eternal and most perfect and essential act of the divine nature, wherein the Godhead acts to an infinite degree and in the most perfect manner possible. The Deity becomes all act; the divine essence itself flows out and is as it were breathed forth in love and joy. So that the Godhead therein stands forth in yet another manner of subsistence, and there proceeds the third person in the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, viz. the Deity in act. (Writings, 121)

Edwards cites numerous texts, including 1 John 4:8, to root this conception in Scripture:

We may learn by the Word of God that the Godhead or the divine nature and essence does subsist in love. “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love” (1 John 4:8 KJV). In the context of which place I think it is plainly intimated to us that the Holy Spirit is that love, as in the twelfth and thirteenth verses: “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. Hereby know we that we dwell in him, because he hath given us of his Spirit.” (Writings, 121)

How can this Love of God be a person in his own right? Words feel very inadequate. But can we not say that the love between the Father and the Son is so perfect, so constant, and carries so completely all that they are in themselves that this love stands forth itself as a Person in his own right? C.S. Lewis tries to get this into a conceivable analogy:

You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club or a trades union, people talk about the “spirit” of that family, club, or trades union. They talk about its spirit because the individual members, when they’re together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they wouldn’t have if they were apart. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence. Of course it isn’t a real person: it is only rather like a person. But that’s just one of the differences between God and us. What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God. (Beyond Personality, 21)

Making Sense of Many Things

In summary, then, there is one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three persons equal in divine essence and glory. The Father has, from all eternity, begotten the Son, meaning that the Father has known himself from all eternity with such fullness that the self which he knows is fully God — God the only begotten Son. And the Father and the Son have from all eternity (there are no beginnings in the eternal Godhead) loved each other, delighted in each other, with such a fullness that this infinite delight carries all the deity and stands forth as a third person — God the Holy Spirit.

The Son is not an impersonal idea, nor the Spirit an impersonal emotion. They are persons, and all the fullness of deity dwells in God’s image, or idea, of himself; and all the fullness of deity dwells in God’s delight, or love, for himself.

Edwards saw that this view of the Trinity helps illuminate “many things that have been wont to be said by orthodox divines about the Trinity” (Writings, 134–5). For example,

  • “Hereby we see how the Father is the fountain of the Godhead, and why when he is spoken of in Scripture he is so often, without any addition or distinction, called God” (Writings, 135).

  • “Hereby we see how that it is possible for the Son to be begotten by the Father, and the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and Son, and yet that all the persons should be co-eternal” (Writings, 135).

Source and Foundation of Christian Hedonism

I close with an implication that is significant in my own effort to understand the crucial place of joy in the Christian life — what I call Christian Hedonism. What Edwards shows is that joy has the massive place it does in Scripture ultimately because it belongs to the very nature of God. God is Joy.

That is, God the Holy Spirit is the divine person who “originates” (eternally!) from the Father and the Son in their loving each other. And this love is not a “merciful” love as if they needed pity. It is an admiring, delighting, exulting love. It is Joy. The Holy Spirit is God’s Joy in God. To be sure, he is so full of all that the Father and Son are, that he is a divine person in his own right. But that means he is more, not less, than the Joy of God.

This means that Joy is at the heart of reality. God is Love, means most deeply, God is Joy in God. As Edwards puts it, “The honor of the Father and the Son is, they are infinitely happy and are the original and fountain of happiness; and the honor of the Holy Ghost is equal, for he is infinite happiness and joy itself” (Writings, 135).

To be indwelt by the Holy Spirit is to be indwelt by the Joy of God in God. To be full of the Holy Spirit is to be overflowing with God’s Joy in God. We are not left to our own limited personalities. We are given divine assistance to enjoy what is infinitely enjoyable. God the Spirit is our indwelling ability to enjoy God.

This experience will reach its climax when we see the Son of God as he truly is at his coming. He prayed for this climactic joy-love, when he said to the Father, “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26).

That love for Jesus will, for all eternity, not be a sacrificial love, but an all-satisfying love. God will be in us, and we will love his Son with his own love, the Holy Spirit. This Joy will be so manifestly owing to the sight of God and the presence of God, that God will be supremely glorified in our joy. He will, at last, be all and in all.