Should we really try to understand the Trinity?

[This is a guest post by Daniel Fender. Daniel is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and a pastor at The Gathering Community Church in Portland, OR. Daniel is participating in this summer’sTh.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.]

Is the Trinity best left a Mystery? Is it foolish to consider the inner workings of the Eternal God? Many evangelicals believe it is at least a bit arrogant.  Mystery and Trinity go hand in hand in most peoples Christian experiences.  We can capture how the average evangelical understands the Trinity in a simple mathematic formula. The Trinity = A Mystery.  The contemporary trend is increasingly to leave Mysteries to fend for themselves. They fall out of our thinking because they are deemed out of our reach.

For Jonathan Edwards, the Trinity was far too valuable to leave as an unfathomable Mystery.  After all it is Edwards who says in Religious Affections, “If the great things of religion are rightly understood, they will affect the heart.”  And the Trinity for Edwards was arguably the greatest thing of religion. The Trinity provided the eternal foundation from which human nature and all of the created order derived its substance, form and purpose.  Because God is the greatest thing of religion understanding the nature of the Trinity should affect the heart.

At the same time we must acknowledge that when Edwards plunges head long into An Unpublished Essay on the Trinity, he is both a man of his own time and a man grappling with the unchangeable nature of God. Let us not forget that he spoke and wrote to a different generation. The entire essay begins with what in Edwards’ day was common:  “‘Tis common when speaking of the Divine happiness to say that God is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of Himself …” Yet today ‘tis not so common to think that way!  God’s enjoyment of God is not so quickly contemplated (let alone understood) today.

For Edwards however, the relationships and inner workings of the Trinity are wrapped up in God enjoying God. “In the perfectly beholding and infinitely loving and rejoicing in, His own essence and perfections, and accordingly it must be supposed that God perpetually and eternally has a most perfect idea of Himself.” Throughout the entire essay Edwards pushes us to think on what is revealed concerning the Trinity.  The chief reason for this is that Scripture reveals not only the fact that the nature of God is triune but that this triune nature is worthy of our contemplation because God has chosen to communicate something about it in the Bible.

However to Edwards following the train of thought that the revelation of Scripture details does not remove all mystery.  Rather it focuses the wonder of the Mystery. As Edwards confesses toward the end of the Essay:

I think the Word of God teaches us more things concerning it to be believed by us than have been generally believed, and that it exhibits many things concerning it exceeding [i.e., more] glorious and wonderful than have been taken notice of; yea, that it reveals or exhibits many more wonderful mysteries than those which have been taken notice of; which mysteries that have been overvalued are incomprehensible things and yet have been exhibited in the Word of God tho they are an addition to the number of mysteries that are in it. No wonder that the more things we are told concerning that which is so infinitely above our reach, the number of visible mysteries increases. (Italics mine)

In other words, the more you see and understand about the nature of God the more amazed you will be and the more the mysteries will increase.  Edwards notes that it is this way also in the natural world when we use a microscope. “…[Y]et the number of things that are wonderful and mysterious in them that appear to him are much more than before, and, if he views them with a microscope, the number of the wonders that he sees will be increased still but yet the microscope gives him more a true knowledge concerning them.” Thus the more you look into the Trinity the more you will understand. And the more you understand the more your understanding will multiply the sense of wonder, awe and mystery.

by David Restivo (via Flickr)

This is a very different understanding to Mystery than many take today. We are far to easily satisfied with the quick (and lazy) label of Mystery. Yet as a form of literature a Mystery demands our attention and a constant organizing and reorganizing of the clues until the Mystery is solved. In fact, until it is solved we are troubled and distracted.  Yet when the Mystery is solved, even partially, we then enjoy each section of the story and clue with more appreciation and depth. In many ways the Trinity is a mystery; but a mystery that demands our enjoyment, and for that reason, demands our attention and thought. Yet as Edwards exhibits the thought demanded of us it is not speculative philosophical ponderings unfettered by any authority. No; the thoughts that we must think are derivative. We have a conception of the Trinity because the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. And the Son has sent his promised Spirit. And the Father, Son and Spirit seem to be enjoying one another more than we ever thought God would. God is really happy about God! And we are called into this joy!

After Edwards shows text after text of Scripture which inform his understanding he then briefly summarizes his conception of the Trinity:

And this I suppose to be that blessed Trinity that we read of in the Holy Scriptures. The Father is the Deity subsisting in the prime, un-originated 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 each of them are properly distinct Persons.

Thus Edwards understood the Son to perfectly embody the Idea (or thoughts) of God and the Spirit to embody the Emotions of God (Or God’s enjoyment of God). If this seems like a rash or quick resolution to a great Mystery, understand that it is his conclusion and summary not his Scriptural reason or logic for getting to this point. (You’ll have to read An Unpublished Essay on the Trinity!)

Yet despite how conclusive all of this sounds, Edwards gladly admits:

But I don’t pretend fully to explain how these things are and I am sensible a hundred other objections may be made and puzzling doubts and questions raised that I can’t solve. I am far from pretending to explaining the Trinity so as to render it no longer a mystery. I think it to be the highest and deepest of all Divine mysteries still, notwithstanding anything that I have said or conceived about it. I don’t intend to explain the Trinity. But Scripture with reason may lead to say something further of it than has been wont to be said, tho there are still left many things pertaining to it incomprehensible.

How much can we understand about the Trinity? How much does the Word of God reveal? How much time and energy should we give to contemplating the Mystery of the Trinity?  What do you think? And why?

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]


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Posted on June 28, 2011, in Th.M. Program, The Enlightenment, Theology Proper and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. Daniel, I was glad to see you write on this. I read “An Unpublished Essay…” last month and thought it was very intriguing. I agree that too many appeal to mystery before diving into the infinite ocean of this doctrine. This leaves notions like community, authority, and love severely deficient in some discussions today. Scripture does indeed reveal some very interesting things about the Trinity and Edwards hits on several of these. My only hesitation was how he spoke of the Son as being “generated in God’s understanding” of himself. Perhaps I have a linear Newtonian framework that needs to be deconstructed but that language seems dangerous to me. Barth uses it to speak of Jesus and I wasn’t very comfortable with it there either because it seems to point to a beginning – although I think both of these men would speak of the eternality of the Father’s thought. Did this bother you any as you read it, or did you just see it as the limitations of finite human language trying to express the infinite? I think this topic needs much more attention than it gets, but I still wrestle with my own understanding here.

    • I like to think (and I could be wrong here) that I am somewhat comfortable with some of Edwards framework for the same reason that he was. Edwards seemed content edging this direction because much of the New Testament points us this way. In his estimation, “Nothing can more agree with the account the Scripture gives us of the Son of God, His being in the form of God and His express and perfect image and representation: (II Cor. 4:4) “Lest the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ Who is the image of God should shine unto them.” (Phil. 2:6) “Who being in the form of God.” (Col. 1:15) “Who is the image of the invisible God.” (Heb. 1:3) “Who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person.”
      It is this kind of talk that moved Edwards to point out that the Son is also called the “wisdom of God” (1Cor.1:24). And though all of this “seems to point to a beginning” to Edwards it seemed to show how perfectly God has eternally conceived of God. Our train of thought is usually one long, if we are lucky, we have two trains of thought that often run into one another, but if God has eternally and perfectly had the idea of himself it would be himself again! Or as Edwards says, “ The idea he has of himself would be himself again.” It would be less a train of though and more of a perfect image of Himself! The image of the invisible God.

      • Thank you for this, Daniel!! One of my first thoughts, as I read your initial post, Billy’s post, and your reply, was Colossians 1.15-20. I think that because we are the created and He is the Creator, there will naturally be a barrier between us and an understanding of His Triune nature, and the eternal relationship(s) amongst the Persons of the Trinity. However, as the Christ Hymn reveals, Christ is the image of the invisible God… Whatever we are to know of Christ, we are to know of God. Therefore, while I do not understand the nature of the Trinity completely, I am okay with the mystery because I am His creation. I accept that my understanding is limited, and yet I am also excited to see what He will reveal when He returns and we get to spend eternity with Him.

    • Billy, as I am sure you will recall, the term “generated” was used by the Greek Fathers when talking of the Son. I have the same disagreement that you do, that the use of it implies some sort of beginning, not just nature inherent in source. Yet the fact is that least the Cappadocians were comfortable with such language, as was apparently Edwards.

      That leads into the recurring discussion about Eternity. If the Son was “generated” as we understand the term to mean, in Eternity, that would make Him co-eternal. Gregory of Nyssa (and I think Basil) argued that one cannot apply the concepts of time such as post and prior to eternity so that the claim that “there was a time when the Son was not” is a mistaken understanding of eternity.

      Of course it seems to me then that it is another appeal to mystery, just stopped at another point. Personally I am quite uncomfortable with using “begotten” and “generated” as applied to the pre-incarnate Son, but Marc keeps up his annoying prodding that I must come up with another way to explain the relationship between the two if I want to jettison such long accepted use of these terms. So can I appeal to mystery at this point too? 🙂

  2. Thank you for a wonderful post on the Trinitarian thought of Edwards. I am also posting next week on the Trinity as well. For me it is very interesting how his Trinitarian thought pervades most of his theological work. I have found that out more and more as I continue to read more of Edwards writings. If we don’t understand his thought and belief on the Trinity we will miss much of what he is expounding in his other writings (i.e. his understanding on grace/divine grace which is also discussed in Religious Affections and even in Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God). So thank you in advance for setting some of the groundwork for my post for next week! Great post overall!!

  3. Edwards excelled here, where most of us probably flounder. His contemplation of the Trinity, was devotion. For many of us, the Trinity is an ontological Rubik’s cube we twist and turn with hopes of finally getting the solution.

    But I’m curious if Edwards concluded from his psychologized reflection on the Trinity (Jesus is the Father’s thought; Spirit His emotion) that, therefore, the way we engage God is analogous. In other words, the inner life of the Trinity models our own approach to Him as primarily cognitive, and intellectual.

    • I totally agree. I am amazed at the humble reverence Edwards takes as he considers the nature of God. I is no mere intellectual game. It was worship that drove the contemplation. Our minds were made to work with worship as our goal!
      About your curiosity: It does seem that Edwards does believe that Christians have been called into a fellowship that is analogous to the eternal life that God has enjoyed in God. Much of Edwards meditation on the Trinity is fed by what we learn about God’s work of redemption in the Church as detailed in the NT. One example of this is when Edwards summarizes the great work of redemption every member of the Trinity plays. In this he understand that “the Holy Ghost immediately communicates to us the thing purchased by communicating Himself, and He is the thing purchased. The sum of all that Christ purchased for men was the Holy Ghost …. Christ purchased for us that we should have the favor of God and might enjoy His love, but this love is the Holy Ghost.” Thus the affections are purchased by Jesus but the affections we experience as fruits of Christ redemptive work are the “fruit of the Spirit”. On the other hand the only way we can ever bare this Spiritual fruit of our affections bearing love and joy toward God is through the intellect correctly understanding and seeing and savoring the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact in Religious Affections he spends an entire chapter showing how gracious affections are formed. And for Edwards gracious affections are developed from a spiritually enlightened mind. And this light comes to us as a gift from God through the Lord Jesus Christ.

  4. Daniel, I’m curious whether you see anything in Edwards’ approach to the Trinity that you would question, or maybe that you would at least say differently? Or, do you think he pretty much nailed it across the board.

    • Because the board is God and the nail is fairly finite I think Edwards was right after striving to walk along the direction of the Scripture to openly admit “I don’t pretend fully to explain how these things are and I am sensible a hundred other objections may be made and puzzling doubts and questions raised that I can’t solve. I am far from pretending to explaining the Trinity so as to render it no longer a mystery.” This is in my view a humble thing to admit for a man who contemplated the revelation of God given to us in the written Word. Personally when I read this kind of meditation I am more caught up in the worship and consideration of how great God is than I am moved to quickly critic. When I read through this Essay, and I have a few times since I first did 9 years ago, I sense that I am the student and Edwards the teacher. That is not to say that Edwards is the only or the final teacher but that I delight in learning from a man who so thoroughly was schooled by the Scripture. It seems that Scripture was the primarily well spring he sought to drink at especially while considering Mysteries.
      However, I do believe that there would be better ways to say many things the Edwards said. Ways of couching things in more modern jargon that may be more appealing initially. Yet I openly admit, I have learned more in this Essay about my need to mediate on what God has revealed in Scripture concerning the Trinity than I have anywhere else. Much has been revealed and I thank God for Edwards being bold enough to reverently connect a few of the dots to at least point a fruitful direction.

    • I appreciate the desire not to criticize too quickly. But, I also think that we learn the most from our historical mentors when we at least try to criticize them. We often find out in the end that they were right all along. But the exercise is good for our brains. I also think we need to be careful about liking someone so much that we don’t press for areas of potential weakness or criticism. It’s possible, even beneficial, to probe for someone’s soft spots without suggesting that we are in any way “superior,” though that’s a temptation that we always need to watch out for. Understanding is the vital first step in historical/theological study, but the move to critical engagement is also necessary.

      So, I’ll come back to my original question. Do you see any such “soft spots” in Edwards approach? (By the way, the answer can be “no.” You can certainly say that you think he did it just right, but only after looking for areas of possible weakness.)

      • I am tempted to just say “No” and say that I entirely agree, but I am called to resist the tempter! In my response to your first question about what I may disagree with most of the push back is wrapped up in the common experience we have all had when others (or even ourselves) disagree for the sake of appearing more intelligent and thoughtful than we may actually be.
        But that all aside, overall I do agree with most of what Edwards communicates about the nature of the Godhead. However, I do believe there is one main “soft spot”.
        Edwards so identifies the Son with the Father’s understanding of himself. In fact the Son is primarily identified as God’s perfect conception of Himself which he has perfectly had for all of eternity. The Spirit on the other hand is primarily understood as the active and affective expression of the Father’s and the Son’s enjoyment of one another. In other words, the Spirit is identified with the perfect and eternal enjoyment of all that God sees in God with is so perfect and eternal and entire that the Spirit is rightly understood as God.
        The “Soft Spot” I see is that the Son is identified with the Intellect and the Spirit with the Affections to such an extent that it would be very easy to see one or two of the members of the Trinity as different from the other in essence. Though all of us understand that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit each have different roles in the work of redemption, we would also resist the idea that there is any difference in any of the members when it comes to their essence, their glory, holiness, ability, power, etc. The identifying of one or more member of the Trinity with a specific “part of God” (though Edwards would never put it that way) is the “Soft Spot”. Yet I believe it is a “Soft Spot” that is could and should continue to be addressed in the framework Edwards outlined so many years ago.

  5. I really appreciate how you brought out Edwards view of studying the mysteries of God in that as you study and learn you realize new horizons all the while discovering new horizons that need to be tackled. That seems to be what makes the depth of God so unsearchable for the nature mind.

    Many tend not even attempt the subject of the Trinity because it is confusing or difficult to understand and out of fear that what they say or believe may be wrong. There are so many partial and wrong teachings about the trinity in our culture that it is scary.

    I enjoy Edwards sympathetic heart toward the subject in that he is willing to be corrected and listen to others that might have legitimate views on the trinity. He doesn’t need to be the authority and seeks to help clarify, as much as possible, his understanding

    I would also agree with Edwards that the more we study and give our attention to the mysteries of God, the greater appreciation and love we will have for our God. Should we teach on the trinity more in our congregations and in what settings? Worship services? Discipleship groups? Do you think we will add to the confusion or alienate people if we try to explain this great mystery? Do you think people loose interest in Christianity if we (church leaders) choose Edwards reasoning – we don’t know exactly how it all works: faith?

    Thanks for the post!

    • I think we need to teach more on the Trinity. But the challenge is for it not to be speculative theology, pondering what no man ( or woman for that matter) ought to ponder, but a deeply biblical study of what God has made plain and what he has left unclear.
      I remember once going to an entire conference devoted to the Trinity and the key note speaker, who was thoroughly biblical and orthodox, gave all of the foundational pieces as the front end of the lecture and then, and this was the surprising part for me, he had a time of direct life to life application. I was amazed at how powerful the applications were. And surprising at times.
      During one of the lectures on the Sons submission to the Father. He applied this by showing that it is just as God-like to submit as it is to be in authority. Again: It is just as God-like to submit as it is to be in authority. Then he showed how much glory and dignity there is to submit as an employee, or as a servant, or as child, or as a wife, or as a church member. We think that it is most like God to be in a place of authority and power however when we look at the revelation of God in Jesus Christ we see that the God of glory submit, was weak, suffered and through it will all receive glory and honor forever and ever. We need to see God for all that God has revealed Himself to be: We need to study and teach about the Trinity!

  6. the question of how much can we understand, and should we continue to strive for a better understanding is an important question. I think that we can understand to a certain extent, much like we can scripture, but that human understanding can always be improved upon. Our core understanding of the Trinity is greatly impacted by the philosophical workings of the Cappadocian Fathers and Augustine. Much of it evangelicals take for granted as doctrine. Yet the issue remains a contemporary one as well. I have a close family friend who is pondering the validity of modalism, as were a pair of young ladies who came to my door a year ago. Yesterday I spoke with a Jehovah’s Witness missionary who denied the personhood and deity of the Spirit and who considered Jesus “a god” but not “God” proper. I think that the nature of God will always be questioned, and that the Church will need to continue to defend the orthodox view of God while working to better understand the Trinity for ourselves.

  7. Hey Daniel,

    Do you still like reading your KJV 😉 ?

    Nice post.

  8. Btw, I like (along with your post), this little statement by Vanhoozer:

    In sum, the Gospel is ultimately unintelligible apart from Trinitarian theology. Only the doctrine of the Trinity adequately accounts for how those who are not God come to share in the fellowship of Father and Son through the Spirit. The Trinity is both the Christian specification of God and a summary statement of the Gospel, in that the possibility of life with God depends on the person and work of the Son and Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity thus serves both as an identification of the dramatis personae and as a precis of the drama itself. “He is risen indeed!” (Kevin Vanhoozer, “The Drama of Doctrine,” 43-44)

    If the Trinity is out of reach—a mystery—then isn’t the Gospel?

    • Amen! God is either Trinitarian and we are able to be called into deep and eternal fellowship with Him or God is like Allah and we will always be kept at a distance from real commune with the Living God.

  9. Daniel, in your response to Tim you say “I think we need to teach more on the Trinity. But the challenge is for it not to be speculative theology.” I think speculation actually gets a bit of a bad rap in this context. Speculation can certainly be bad when it tries to go too far. But, theology often has to go beyond “what God has made plain.” Many things are far from “plain,” which is why we have these discussions in the first place. I think there’s a legitimate place for speculation (i.e. trying to come up with reasonable ways of thinking about issues/implications that are not entirely clear in Scripture) as long as we’re clear that this is what we’re doing. Speculation becomes dangerous when we start to act and think that our speculations are themselves part of revealed truth.

    • My attack on Speculation was not intended to be an affront to the intellect. Rather an affront to ever speculating without the firm roots of Scripture under our feet. It is without these boarders and without the doctrine detailed in the Scripture that we will ponder into a pit of purposeless speculation. I whole heartedly believe we must think with absolute dependence on the Word of God and upon the Spirit of God. I love the way that Paul spoke it to Timothy: “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2Tim.2:7). We must think. And we must think especially on what is in the Bible. And we must do it because God will help us understand!

  10. Well, I hope all is well, Daniel! I don’t know if you remember me from your early days at Multnomah (that’s what my reference to your KJV was about). I’m excited to see how the Lord has worked and is continuing to work in your life!! Blessings, Bobby Grow (Lab Instructor 😉 ).

  11. Woops, scratch my previous comment, Daniel; I didn’t see your other one above 😉 . I’m still glad though to see how the LORD is continuing to work in your life! From KJV to ESV? That sounds like a good move (Reformed even 😉 ).

  12. Hope it’s ok to contribute. I think this actually demonstrates the real problems in this exercise, for several reasons.

    1. It assumes that our reason is able to articulate the inner workings, and interestingly Edwards must (as anyone would) rely on the logic of his day. I have to day it is a logic (as a computer generation postconservative evangelical with a first degree in Mathematics from Oxford) I do not find compelling.

    2. If our understanding of the Trinity is rooted in the Scriptural testimony, why not limit ourselves to the Scriptural language and categories, at least as far as is possible?

    3. The real problem I have with Edwards is that any being’s expression of thought must be somehow secondary to the being itself, and so (not surprisingly) Edwards has been used to support the idea of the ‘eternal functional subordination’ of the Son in the Diocese of Sydney, Australia, which in turn is used to justify the subordination of women, which is then imposed on exegesis, so ‘kephale’ in 1 Cor 11 must mean ‘head = authority over’ because if you disagree with this, you are disagreeing with the Trinity!

    Enough said?

  13. I’m not a trinitarian I just want leave a scripture here for thought Romans 1:20. It says that you should be able to understand the godhead. If you can’t understand it there must be something wrong with your doctrine. Just food for thought.

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