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The stuff (accidental) heretics are made of

An open Bible being read

When it comes to certain biblical concepts, it’s really okay to admit, “I don’t know.” If you’re like me, you probably have a list (maybe even a big one). How God’s sovereignty and our moral agency work together. The problem of evil. The continued existence of The Bachelor. And of course, the Trinity.

Defined at its most basic level, the doctrine of the Trinity states that there is one God who exists as three persons—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all of whom are equally God, yet distinct from one another. How this relationship works exactly, we don’t quite know. It is a mystery, a paradox (but not a contradiction). And because it is so foreign a concept to us, we often turn to analogies to help.

  • Maybe we’ll describe the Trinity as being like water, which exists in solid, liquid, and gaseous states, but is still water.
  • Or we’ll say it is like a star and the light and heat which emanate from it.
  • Or perhaps we’ll compare the Trinity to a family, made up of a father, mother, and child.

You’ve undoubtedly heard at least one of these, especially if you have kids. With kids, trying to use analogies just makes good sense, especially with abstract concepts. But analogies can only do so much, especially with something as mysterious as God’s three-and-one-ness, as not only do a plethora of kids books and DVDs, but a laundry list of heresies attest.

Three common Trinitarian heresies

One teacher attempted to explain the persons of the Trinity as “forms” or “modes” of existence—that at certain times, God acted as the Father, and others as the Son, or the Spirit. This heresy—called Modalism or Sabellianism (after it’s originator)—is alive and well in our own day, as taught by Oneness Pentecostal churches, and in books such as The Shack. Another teacher, Arius, tried to explain that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were not divine at all, but created beings. His heresy, Arianism or Subordinationism, is alive and well in the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Another heresy, Tritheism, teaches that the Father, Son, and Spirit are not one, but fully separate divine beings, which is what is taught by the Mormons.

The stuff accidental heretics are made of

Which brings us back to analogies. I love using them, but I can’t bring myself to use them when trying to describe the Trinity, whether with kids or adults. They’re just too risky and I don’t want to be an accidental heretic. For example:

  • The Trinity is not like water in its three forms, because that’s modalism.
  • The Trinity isn’t like a star emanating light and heat, because that’s Arianism.
  • The Trinity isn’t like a family, because that’s Tritheism.

While analogies might make for entertaining YouTube videos, they make for terrible theology. The Trinity is like the Trinity. God’s nature as three and one is a grand mystery. It is incomparable—there is literally nothing else like Him in all the universe. So instead of trying a bad analogy, let’s embrace the awkwardness. We might not know how the mystery makes sense, but God knows. And sometimes that has to be good enough for us, too.

[Reading Writers] Reading on the most important doctrine ever

Reading writers: What to read on the most important doctrine ever

So about a month and a half ago, the Christian blogosphere and social media world went crazy in a debate over the Trinity—and specifically, God the Son’s relationship to God the Father. After reading many articles, tweets, and so on, the only definite conclusion I’ve been able to come to is that it was wise to keep my mouth shut. After all, the Trinity is one of the most difficult doctrines of the Christian faith to even begin to wrap your head around.

Today, Brandon Smith, co-author of Rooted, and my co-worker at LifeWay Christian Resources, joins me to talk about what books Christians wanting to learn more about this incredibly important topic should read, as well as to settle a debate we started on Twitter the other night.

In this episode, you’ll hear

  • What is the point in studying the Trinity at all;
  • Where to find classic books online; and
  • Which Batman movie is really the best.

A few of the books and resources discussed in this episode

What’s happening on the next episode of the podcast?

Barring any complications, I’ll be joined by Philip Nation, author of Habits For Our Holiness, to discuss reading’s role in our spiritual formation.

Can I sponsor Reading Writers?

Want to sponsor a future episode of Reading Writers? Send me a note and let’s talk.

Subscribing, sharing, and your feedback

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You can also connect with me on Twitter at @aaronstrongarm, on Facebook or via email to share your feedback.

Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of Reading Writers!

Experiencing the Trinity

experiencing-trinity

When most people hear “Trinity,” they think to Carrie Ann Moss’ character in the Matrix movies. When many (most?) Christians hear “Trinity,” they think “concept of God I (maybe) affirm, but don’t get.” But how many think of the Trinity as practical—a source of encouragement and comfort when you’re at the end of your rope?

Joe Thorn does, and we should be grateful for that. Because if he didn’t, we wouldn’t his latest book, Experiencing The Trinity: The Grace of God for the People of God.

Preaching to ourselves

Born out of Thorn’s self-described “dark night of the soul,” Experiencing the Trinity  was written because the author himself needed to be reminded of the truths found within. Working too hard for too long with too little rest left him burnt out and in need of help. And where he found the greatest help was in God’s Word, by preaching the gospel to himself.

Even as he writes to help us “reflect on God and the gospel and how they overcome our fear, failure, pain, and unbelief” (18), Thorn openly admits he’s writing because he needs the reminder, too. And this is something too many of us writer types forget too quickly: when we write, it’s really helpful that what we’re writing be something we’re living or working through ourselves, especially when it’s on issues of faith. It adds weight to what we’re saying for our readers to know our words aren’t theoretical. We don’t think this is maybe kinda sorta helpful possibly. We believe it’s helpful to you because it helped us.

So when Thorn writes a simple phrase like, “Your hope is not your own obedience, but the obedience of Jesus Christ” (73), it’s because he’s had to wrestle with it again and again (like hopefully all of us have). We don’t get away from this reality as we grow in our faith. If anything, we’re forced repeatedly to realize just how often we rely on ourselves instead of on Christ.

We try to make deals with God, or we make sweeping statements about all the things we do in service to him… but none of that brings us any true comfort. If anything, it leaves us in a bigger mess than before because we’re focused on the wrong thing. We’re looking at ourselves, rather than Jesus, because seeing him and knowing him—or, beholding him—changes everything:

You cannot feel your way to the glory of Jesus, for it is essentially the totality of who he is and what he has done. You must give yourself to not just knowing about him, but knowing him. And the more you know him, the less appealing the world becomes, the less painful your trials are, and the more you grow in contentment, because this glorious Christ is yours and you are his. (1o3)

That’s good news, isn’t it?

The right book for the right time in my life

Note to Self, Thorn’s first book, was a much-needed and timely encouragement. Experiencing The Trinity, likewise, came at just the right time in my life—a time when I’ve been really reminded that it’s easy for me to run on fumes, and carry on as though everything is grand for a fairly significant period period of time. And for the most part, people don’t seem to notice. (Which either says a lot about them or me, I’ll leave it for you to decide, dear reader.)

When I read his encouragement to “draw near to the Lord by faith,” and “set your heart on his promises and ask for his divine assistance,” (88) I really feel the pull—the way the Lord is using that encouragement as if to say, “Hey you, pay attention: that means you, too.” The Lord will indeed provide for those in need. When he writes that the comfort of the Holy Spirit that may not be relief from temporal discomfort but “rest for your soul” (119), it’s not just for other folks—it’s me, too. So maybe I shouldn’t forget that, huh?

Not your ordinary devotional

I’m generally not a fan of “devotional” books—the ones filled with pithy encouragements, designed to brighten your day. It’s not that they’re bad, because many are quite good, but I’ve found too many paint too small a picture of God. But I have a pretty simple rule: if Joe Thorn writes it, I read it. What he offers in Experiencing The Trinity is a book that blends appeals to the head and the heart they way they were always meant to be. As a result, it actually succeeds in what it aims to do: give encouragement for the weary, not through sweet sentiments, but by proclaiming our spectacular God. While you may still not “get” the Trinity (and if you don’t, you’re in good company), you will grow in your appreciation of the importance of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and find some relief for your weariness in the process.


Title: Experiencing The Trinity: The Grace of God for the People of God
Author: Joe Thorn
Publisher: Crossway (2015)

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Bookstore

Creation and the Trinity stand together

creation-trinity

One of the most shocking things to me is how little Christians are encouraged to think deeply about creation and the Trinity.

I’m not talking about all the various arguments for methods of creation, views on the age of the earth or anything like that. Nor am I referring to attempting to understand the complexities of what Scripture reveals of the equally divine natures of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and how we can have a God who is three yet one. No what I’m referring to the central reality of creation being a divine—and more specifically, a Trinitarian—work.

Bavinck summarizes it well, writing:

Creating is a divine work, an act of infinite power and therefore is incommunicable in either nature or grace to any creature, whatever it may be. But Christian theology all the more unanimously attributed the work of creation to all three persons in the Trinity. Scripture left no doubt on this point. God created all things through the Son (Ps. 33:6; Prov. 8:22; John 1:3; 5:17; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:15–17; Heb. 1:3) and through the Spirit (Gen. 1:2; Ps. 33:6; Job 26:13; 33:4; Ps. 104:30; Isa. 40:13; Luke 1:35).[1. Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2, 421]

And for the Christian, Bavinck says, this is something we absolutely cannot lose our grip on. When we treat the Son and Spirit as mere “instruments” in the work of creation, as though the labor of creation were somehow divided between them, we reveal (at best) a woefully deficient view of God, and at worst, a deviation from the doctrine of the Trinity itself (a la Arius).

“All things originate simultaneously from the Father through the Son in the Spirit,” Bavinck writes.

The Father is the first cause; the initiative for creation proceeds from him. Accordingly, in an administrative sense, creation is specifically attributed to him. The Son is not an instrument but the personal wisdom, the Logos, by whom everything is created; everything rests and coheres in him (Col. 1:17) and is created for him (Col. 1:16), not as its final goal but as the head and master of all creatures (Eph. 1:10). And the Holy Spirit is the personal immanent cause by which all things live and move and have their being, receive their own form and configuration, and are led to their destination, in God.[2. Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2, 423]

Creation is a divine work. It is a Trinitarian work. If we lose our grasp on the Trinity, our doctrine of creation collapses. The two stand and fall together.

A God-Sized Gospel

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Ephesians 1:3-14

In this passage of Ephesians, Paul shows his readers a picture of the triune God initiating and accomplishing the reconciliation and redemption of His people all for the praise of His infinite glory. It’s one of the most beautiful passages of the entire Bible.

And in the Greek text, it’s one, long, elegant sentence.

It’s the run-on sentence to end all run-on sentences—one that some commentators call a monster!

So what would cause Paul to create a “monster” sentence like this, detailing the story of redemption on such an epic scale? Why would he, in the middle of writing a letter, break out into what almost seems to be a spontaneous fit of praise?

It’s that he has a God-sized gospel. I really appreciated reading Fred Sanders’ insights into this passage in The Deep Things of God. Take a look and ask yourself: Is my gospel too small?

On the basis of Ephesians 1:3-14, nobody can accuse Paul of having a gospel that is too small. There is an abundance here bordering on excessiveness. And Paul’s sentence has that character precisely because, as Scripture breathed out by God, it faithfully corresponds to the character of the reality it points to: a gospel of salvation tha tis the work of the untamable holy Trinity. Like all Scripture, this passage is the word fo God and has within itself the life, activity, and incisiveness we would expect in an almighty speech-act through which God does his work (Heb. 4:12). It is an effective word, and one of its effects here is to snatch its listeners out of their own lives and drop them into Christ. It immediately takes the reader to the heavenlies, to the world of the Spirit, and from that vantage point invites us to join in blessing God for the blessing he blessed us with…

All of us think from our own point of view, starting from a center in ourselves and how things look to us. This is unavoidable, since everyone has to start from where they are. . . . The only way to escape this tendency is to be drawn out of ourselves into the bewilderingly large and complex gospel of God. . . . What we need is the miracle of being able to see our own situation from an infinitely higher point of view. We need to start our thinking from a center in God, not in ourselves. . . . Paul invites us to an ecstatic gospel: the good news of standing outside (ek-stasis) of ourselves. (pp. 101-102)

Book Review: The Deep Things of God by Fred Sanders

For many Christians today, the Trinity is a doctrine to which we give almost no thought. While we certainly affirm it as being true, we don’t really know how it makes a difference in our lives.

So it gets easier for us to start thinking that maybe it doesn’t matter. The seeming paradox of God being one, yet three is a huge stumbling block to many people looking at the Christian faith… and maybe it wouldn’t change anything if we just let it go.

Fred Sanders, associate professor of theology at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute, disagrees.

“Deep down it is evangelical Christians who most clearly witness to the fact that the personal salvation we experience is reconciliation with God the Father, carried out through God the Son, in the power of God the Holy Spirit,” he writes (p. 9).

But we’ve lost something as a movement; we’ve settled for a theological and spiritual shallowness, especially in regards to the Trinity. “Our beliefs and practices all presuppose the Trinity, but that presupposition has for too long been left unexpressed . . . and taken for granted rather than celebrated and taught” (p. 11).

That’s why he wrote The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything. In this book, Sanders hopes to reawaken an understanding of, and desire to celebrate, the deeply Trinitarian nature of Christianity.

Because the Trinity is so overwhelming in it’s otherness, it’s tempting for us to avoid even attempting to speak to it. But as Sanders writes, “We . . . should not let ourselves be trapped into thinking that everything depends on our ability to articulate the mystery of the triune God” (p. 36).

The reality is we are tacitly (implicitly) Trinitarian in innumerable ways. The Trinity serves as the encompassing framework for our thinking and confession. “It is the deep grammar of all the central Christian affirmations” (p. 48).

This implicit knowledge leads to explicit expression in salvation, spirituality, church life, prayer and Bible study. These are the realms to which Sanders focuses the majority of the book. Read More about Book Review: The Deep Things of God by Fred Sanders

Book Review: God the Holy Trinity

Title: God the Holy Trinity: Reflections on Christian Faith and Practice
Author: Timothy George (editor)
Publisher: Baker Academic

“When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School during the 1970s, one of my teachers published a book entitled God the Problem,” writes Timothy George, contributor and editor of God the Holy Trinity, Reflections on Christian Faith and Practice.

“While reveling in obscurity and complexity may be the delight of some theologians, if there has ever been a genuine ‘problem’ in Christian doctrine, then surely it is how the eternal God can be both One and yet Three at the same time” (p. 9).

Yet, this is exactly what all orthodox Christians confess: that God is both One and Three, who has made Himself known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. While this doctrine is confusing and wrapped in mystery, it is essential to the Christian faith. Read More about Book Review: God the Holy Trinity

Book Review: Making Sense of the Trinity

making-sense-trinity

The Trinity.

It’s one of the most confusing doctrines in all the Christian faith.

But it’s also among the most crucial.

In Making Sense of the Trinity, Millard Erickson shows readers the relevance of this doctrine, as he answers three crucial questions:

  1. Is the doctrine of the Trinity biblical?
  2. Does the doctrine of the Trinity make sense?
  3. Does the doctrine of the Trinity make any difference?

Is the doctrine of the Trinity biblical?

This is an important question, perhaps the most important.  As Erickson writes in the opening pages, if “this strange-appearing doctrine is taught in the Bible, either explicitly or implicitly, we must accept it, or at least take it very seriously. If, on the other hand, the Bible does not assert such a teaching we may not be required to believe it… There is no virtue in continuing to hold such a difficult doctrine of the trinity if it is not actually taught in the Bible” (p. 17-18).

Erickson lays out the biblical foundation of the doctrine, showing where the doctrine is implicitly taught within the Old and New Testament, looking at support for the unity of God, the deity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (all of whom are referred to in multiple passages as God), and the three-in-oneness of God. And honestly, there’s a lot there. As you look at the Baptismal formula, Jesus repeatedly identifying himself as God by implication throughout the gospel of John and a host of other passages, we’re lead to the inevitable conclusion that the doctrine is, in fact, biblical. Erickson writes,

We may say, then, that when the whole text of Scripture is taken seriously, the doctrine of the Trinity emerges. It teaches clearly that God is one and is unique, that he is the only God that is true and exists. It teaches, either directly or indirectly, that there are three persons who are fully divine, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And it also teaches, indirectly and by implication, that these three are one (p. 42).

Does the doctrine of the Trinity make sense?

With a biblical foundation in place, Erickson asks does the doctrine of the Trinity make sense? Must we, as he puts it, “choose between our Christian commitment and our rationality” in order to believe it? Read More about Book Review: Making Sense of the Trinity