Anyone who has had exposure to the Christian Doctrine of the Trinity will agree that it really is a mystery how the three distinct persons of Father, Son, and Holy spirit can constitute only one God. But that’s not the ‘mystery’ we want to talk about here!
Rather, the mystery that’s the subject of this Fish Hooks is a historical fact which puzzles thoughtful students of religious history: How did the concept of a divine Trinity ever arise from the Jewish faith? Now some who are not so thoughtful have suggested that this was simply an evolutionary process – that some Jews were influenced by the example of their pagan neighbors who had multiple deities performing different functions, and over time this evolved into the idea of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But this is a simplistic explanation that ignores three fundamental facts:
- There is no historical basis for such an evolutionary process. The evidence says that the idea of the Trinity was born with the Christian sect that abruptly came into being after the crucifixion of Jesus.
- The Jews were thoroughly (one might say ‘fanatically’) monotheistic. The Shema prayer which devout Jews recite twice a day begins with this phrase: “Hear O Israel: The Lord Our God, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) The oneness of God was at the very heart of the Jewish faith and deviations from this truth were not tolerated.
- The Trinity is not at all the same as multiple gods, an idea which is abhorrent to both Christians and Jews. Polytheistic religions assign different functions to their various gods and often visualize them in competition or conflict. The three persons of the Trinity are a single God with a single will and purpose.
So how do we explain this sudden and radical change in belief? A remarkable analog from the history of science may be helpful: Until 1905, physicists were thoroughly convinced that the laws of motion developed by Isaac Newton and others were all that was needed to explain nature. But discoveries of phenomena at super-high-speeds and super-small scales that couldn’t be explained by the ‘classical’ laws forced the need for new theory to explain the new facts. You couldn’t abandon the old well-proven laws or deny the new facts, so the new theories of relativity and quantum mechanics had to be somehow integrated into the old laws.
Much the same thing happened with the belief in the Trinity. God had revealed Himself to the Jewish people as one God, and there was no disputing that fact. Yet when the first disciples personally experienced the risen Christ on Easter and then the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they were forced to recognize a new reality: God was still one, but somehow functioned as three distinct persons. Jesus Christ, a true human, is distinct from the Father and the Spirit, yet they are not three Gods, but One Sovereign and eternal Lord. This was the new revealed truth.
Just as for early-twentieth-century physicists, embracing the new reality involved a lot of thought and considerable controversy. And just as the laws of the new physics were ultimately formulated (but not really explained) in the language of mathematics, the doctrine of the Trinitarian God was ultimately formulated (but not really explained) in the words of the three great Creeds of Christianity (Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian).
Much as the new physics permitted previously-puzzling facts to be coherently explained, Christians realized that the Trinitarian doctrine meshed seamlessly with the Hebrew scriptures, even explaining some puzzling things, such as when God speaks of Himself in the plural (Genesis 1:26), the figure of a human with divine authority (Daniel 7:13-14), and the Spirit of God referred to as a separate entity (Isaiah 48:16). Perhaps it’s also appropriate to note that even after a century of demonstration as fact, relativity and quantum mechanics still seem to contradict our intuitive sense of what is possible – and pretty much the same thing can be said for the nearly 2000 years we’ve been thinking about the Trinity! That just illustrates that God’s realities don’t have to make sense to us to be true!
So what explains the doctrine of the Trinity? Simply this: it’s the way that God revealed Himself in the New Covenant.