What is God’s most important commandment? When asked about this, Jesus replied,
“‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’” (Mark 12:29-30, NRSV)
Notice the last two elements with which we are to love God: mind and strength.
When was the last time you really exerted some serious mental effort towards understanding what the truth of the matter is about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? When was the last time you read a challenging, serious book on the subject, or compared scripture with scripture, or really wondered about why this isn’t a teaching of three gods, if indeed it isn’t? When was the last time you listened to someone’s story who converted from Christianity to Islam in part because the Trinity made no sense to him or her? Did you write down their objections, separate the serious from the superficial, and dig into scripture and tradition to find out how they should be answered? Have you looked deeply into past disputes between serious, informed, believing Christians about the meaning, truth, and biblical or creedal bases for belief in a tripersonal God?
If you’re like most Christians, you’ll say “No” to all of the above. The merely cultural Christian, the clueless pew-warmer, of course thinks little about any theological subject. But what is more startling is that serious, educated, thinking Christians often devote little thought to the Trinity. I have known many life-long Christian intellectuals who haven’t. Why?
One reason is fear. There’s an irrational dread that hangs over this topic, which causes people to pass around this little chestnut of “wisdom”:
The Trinity: Try to Understand It and You’ll Lose Your Mind.
Try to Deny It and You’ll LOSE YOUR SOUL!
Basically, you can’t understand it, and if you look into it, you risk coming to think it is false, in which case, you’ll go straight to Hell.
Really? This is a remarkable claim (or is it a threat?), one without parallel. It’s unclear who imagined that our sanity (“Lose Your Mind”) is at stake in this. But as to the threat of Hell, this is famously asserted by the baffling “Athanasian creed,” which starts with such a threat, gives a famously unclear summary of what “the Trinity” is all about, and then reiterates the threat, saying “He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.” If the Trinity simply can’t be understood, and if disbelieving it results in loss of salvation, then people conclude that we should just unquestioningly believe it… whatever “it” is! It’s not clear, though, that this is real belief: mouthing some trinitarian words and thinking that one believes whatever it is that those words might mean.
Many Christian instinctively reject this. The confusing statements of the “Athanasian” creed just can’t be required for salvation. People are often baptized without any quiz on the contents of that creed. And sometimes children, the mentally handicapped, or the illiterate are saved, and it is not at all clear that they have signed onto the paradoxes of that creed. But many believers turn this insight into an excuse to not think about these matters. “If it’s not necessary for salvation,” they reason, “it’s not important for me to think about.” But this is terrible reasoning. Many, many things are important to think about, for various reasons, which are not required beliefs to be saved.
Simple human laziness too plays a role. And also: poorly done theology, often incorporating or inspired by poorly done philosophy. A good theorist entices the student further into the subject, making the confusing less confusing, and encouraging the enquirer to move farther along. The bad theorist piles confusion atop confusion in tottering heaps, and labels the whole monstrosity in learned, abstract jibber-jab, mystifying all who hear, and making them think that he, the bad theorist, is uttering profundities for which human language is inadequate. His very unclarity, in which he ostentatiously and shamelessly revels, is taken as a sign that he’s dealing in profound mysteries, and the student goes away discouraged, convinced that the subject lies forever shrouded in fog and darkness. Many theologians are bad theorists. It is an interesting question why, but here I merely observe a painful fact that is witnessed by dozens of books on my office shelves. If you’ve read some of these books, this may be why you have little to no interest in thinking hard about the Trinity. Is the subject impenetrable? Maybe. But maybe you’ve mostly heard from people who have no interest in penetrating it, as their image is better burnished by their repeating, riffing on, and reveling in confusions. Flee any theologian who is more interested in endlessly posing as the most humble, reverent, learned dealer in divine mysteries, than he is in helping you to clearly understand this subject. An infallible sign of such a bad theorist is gassing endlessly about how unique and important and wonderful and earth-changing this doctrine of the Trinity is, without clearly telling you just what that doctrine is and isn’t, and without giving you solid reasons for thinking it is true.
In my experience, most Christians are confused about this subject, and are stuck with unclear ideas and with jumping back and forth to different and incompatible ways of thinking about the Trinity. But we need to be reminded that God has self-revealed, that in the lives of Christians, singly and in groups, in dreams and visions, prophecies and inspired writings, he has instructed us on how to think about him. And he is not a mumbling trickster or a heartless inquisitor, eager to leave you baffled or to catch you out in a mistaken judgment. Nor is a he a bully who demands that you say you believe things which you in fact don’t believe. If you are a follower of Christ, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9, NRSV), and you are destined to rule the earth under Christ. (Revelation 2:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:2-3) Jesus has hidden none of the riches of his wisdom from you; “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:15) Do you think Jesus is confused about the Trinity? If he’s not, and he’s left all his wisdom to his followers, why should we be mired in permanent confusion about the Trinity?
It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” (Pr. 25:2, NRSV)
You, Christian, are a brother or sister, and even a friend, of “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” (Hebrews 2:11; John 15:15; Revelation 1:5) It is not for you to be afraid of thinking hard about the God who is love, and who delights in self-revealing to those who seek him. It is for you to spend your mental strength gladly and expectantly. Leave behind the chickens on the shore and jump in with both feet.