Putting into words the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — the three persons of the holy Trinity — has led to controversies for almost as long as there has been a church. A library could be stuffed full of books on the topic to serve as proof. But to properly approach the Trinity we must push through those debates.
In 2010, Fred Sanders published the appropriately titled book, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything. In it he wrote, “The doctrine of the Trinity expels a host of unworthy ideas about God’s love. . . . God is not lonely, or bored, or selfish. . . . This is what the doctrine of the Trinity helps us learn with greater precision: that God is love. The triune God is a love that is infinitely high above you, eternally preceding you, and welcoming you in.”
Powerful. In other words, the end of our pursuit in not merely knowing about this triune God more clearly, but knowing him experientially. Our theology — when done properly — is an invitation to experience God’s love and presence as we delight in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
That’s the theme of the excellent book, Delighting in the Trinity, written by historian and theologian Michael Reeves, who serves as the President and Professor of Theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford. I asked Reeves to explain why he wrote it.
I wrote the book out of a simple pastoral desire to have people know the living God better. I see, particularly amongst UK students, an enslavement to idolatry. That is how I would put it. There is such an impoverished understanding of God that people don’t see the beauty of the triune God.
“The triune God is a love that is infinitely high above you, eternally preceding you, and welcoming you in.”
Therefore, the whole Christian life is shrunken and withered because they are thinking, “Well, I have got out of hell, but I am not sure I want to be with this God.” And particularly if you are thinking the Trinity is something awkward or difficult in God, then you have got something very schizophrenic in your faith. You are thinking, “Okay, I have got a God who produced a good gospel, but the God behind that gospel isn’t actually himself good or beautiful or desirable.”
Yes, and to show the beauty of the triune God in your book you often contrast him with Islam. Explain why.
Well, I do want to draw this comparison not just so you can see the difference from Islam. I remember as a teenager I was interested in Islam for a while just because of the simplicity, the cleanness of its monotheism, and that is quite attractive. It was attractive to me then. And I now see: No, that was horribly reductive. And by snipping out the Trinity, you are not snipping out what is ugly or awkward, but what is beautiful. But it is not simply a contrast with this Islam that I wanted to bring across. It is a contrast with single-person gods, of whom Allah is the best known example.
The reason I wanted to make that contrast is I think that so many Christians are assuming that the living God is a single-person god. But if he is a single-person god, then he looks very much like Allah and will behave like Allah, which means that, not being as he is, he won’t offer a gracious gospel. He won’t offer us intimacy because the very nature of this god is different. Allah does not offer free grace. He doesn’t offer intimacy because of his very nature.
I wanted to draw out how what you think about the nature of God is going to change your very understanding of the gospel from soup to nuts.
Yes, everything, top to bottom — and why your book is so good and valuable. Let me step back and look at the big picture of the intertrinitarian relationship we see in Scripture. You work with college students and you have a heart for college students. Imagine a student approaches you who wants to understand the Trinity. How would explain the biblical doctrine of the Trinity?
Yes, I always want to start with Jesus. I don’t want to start with abstract illustrations, shamrock leaves, eggs, that kind of stuff. I want to start with Jesus and say, “Look, when you proclaim Jesus, you proclaim a triune God. He reveals a triune God to us.” So, for example, the sort of verse I would like to go to is John 20:31. John says he writes his Gospel “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ,” — that means, the one anointed by the Spirit, — “the Son of God.”
So when you believe in Jesus the Son, then you believe in the revelation of a God who is proclaiming himself to be Father. Who is Jesus the Son of? He is Son of the Father. And that is the first thing I really want people to see in their understanding of God. He is not like any other. The God revealed in Jesus is a Father.
You think of John 14:6 as well. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” And so, when you come to see Jesus the Son, he says the God that he reveals is a Father, eternally a Father — eternally, therefore, one who has a relationship, who loves his Son. And that sort of thing Jesus says in John 17:24, “Father, you loved me before the foundation of the world.” This isn’t something that started at some point. For eternity, God has been a Father loving his Son.
“Absolutely singular supreme beings do not like creation.”
God has loved him by pouring out his Spirit on him. The Spirit is the means of his blessing to him. The Spirit personally works on the Son to make the Son enjoy the love of the Father for eternity. And so, what I want students, for example, to see as I am talking about the Trinity is very quickly to be able to see this isn’t some abstract, strange math we are talking about. We are talking about a beautiful fellowship of love so that, even if they are not immediately understanding it, they are seeing that this is something desirable.
Amen. So it seems this eternal relationship and eternal love within our trinitarian God is really what most distinguishes him from other single-person gods.
Absolutely, yeah. Absolutely. So, I mean, there is a real tension within Islam. I mentioned this in the book at one point where one of Allah’s 99 names — these 99 names are supposed to describe how he is in eternity — but one of those 99 names is “the loving.” Well, that is really problematic. Now, of course, that is a lovely thing to say, but how can he be loving if there is no one there for him to love? And so, because he is a single-person god, he cannot be essentially, eternally loving. And that is really why he is not going to offer a gospel of grace or offer close fellowship with himself for the Muslim in paradise. He will never get to see or be with, let alone be sons of, Allah.
That is so important. I want to change gears and talk about creation. In the book you write in one place, “Absolutely singular supreme beings do not like creation.” What do you mean by that?
What I mean by that is that, if God is an absolutely singular being, a single person, and has been so for eternity, then clearly that is how he likes things to be. It seems a very unnatural thing for such a God to cause anything else to exist. Why would he want to cause anything else to exist? For eternity, he is happy entirely by himself and has never known relationship, never known what it is to love another. And just as you look at other systems of thought that have an absolutely singular supreme being, again and again you see they veil the physical and the feminine as slightly embarrassing things. Creation is a slightly awkward thing with a single person God, as is femininity.
Wow, you have to keep expounding on that.
If God is a single person who has never enjoyed loving another, there is no real rationale for loving relationship being a good thing. There is certainly no eternal rationale for that at all. I think one good example of this would be in second-century Gnosticism, one of the strains of Gnosticism — which Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code made out to be a kind of protofeminist movement, which is a pack of lies — in second-century Gnosticism, you start with a monism that the single being is good, the spiritual realm only is good, and the existence of a second thing, the physical, the creation, is a bad thing. And the Gnostic hope is that the physical or creation would be slurped back up into the spiritual realm one day.
Now, if you have got that view of reality, imagine then reading Genesis 2 where you have a man who is all by himself. Well, that is a good thing, right? That mirrors the spiritual reality, the ultimate spiritual reality being all by itself, which is good. The existence of a second thing beside it, woman, is considered a bad thing. Hence, you see, at the end of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Peter says, “Let Mary leave us for women are not worthy of eternal life,” and Jesus corrects Peter slightly and says, “No, women who make themselves male may enter the kingdom of heaven.”
And so, with this idea of, “Only one is good,” therefore women were very devalued. But if you have a relational God, you have the Father who is eternally the loving Head of the Son, then suddenly a marriage becomes deeply affirmed and a beautiful thing, the Father and the Son relationship being echoed out in a marriage relationship.
Beautiful. That was historian and theologian Michael Reeves, talking with us about his incredibly good book, Delighting in the Trinity. If you’re looking for a summer read, consider it. Dr. Reeves serves as the President and Professor of Theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford. Tomorrow I’ll ask him what it looks like in practice to delight in the trinity. I’m your host Tony Reinke and I’ll see you tomorrow.
Find other recent and popular Ask Pastor John episodes.