I was having a conversation with somebody about the Trinity recently. Coming from a Russian Jewish background, but having a belief in Christianity of a sort, they were not yet wholly convinced by the three-ness of the persons. There are lots of ways you could address the issues, but I wonder how you would tackle that concern?
My friend told me he could read, and understood, Hebrew. So, we looked straight at Genesis 1. God said, ‘let there be…’ or ‘let the…’ several times. But when he comes to create man, he suddenly insists, ‘let us…’ But nobody else is there? Who else is he talking to?
I am often asked a similar question by Muslims from a different angle. Some of them insist that the Trinity is a later invention of Christians that has been inserted into the text. I also like to take them to Genesis 1 to show that, right in the first chapter of the Bible – a bit that isn’t even held principally by Christians, but by unitarian Jews – that there is either (based on this alone) more than one God or a triune God. As the rest of the Bible insists – both old and new testaments – that there is but one God, it cannot be the former. So, we are pushed to the latter.
Anyway, my Jewish friend was approaching the matter from a slightly different angle. But he recognised the usual ‘plurals of majesty’ argument was weak. And if it isn’t a plural of majesty – and we would only take it to be so if we are specifically reading that in and ignoring other portions of the old testament too – we must be left with a triune God. We then looked at a few other scriptures – like Psalm 110 – and then jumped over to the Hebrews 1 commentary on it. The consistent message of scripture, from the first chapter of Genesis and scattered throughout thereafter, is that God is triune.
We then talked more generally about how we can know anything about God at all. I asked my friend, ‘what is God’s name?’ He, as I imagined he would, said that he couldn’t say. I gently suggested that it would be a bit odd for God to tell us his personal name if he didn’t expect us to use it. It can’t be blasphemous if we are talking to, or specifically about God, using the very name he told us by which we ought to know him. I tell people my name so they know what to call me. It strikes me, Yahweh has done exactly the same for us.
Regardless, I said to my friend – whether he is comfortable using God’s personal name or not – how do we actually know what God’s personal name is? How do we even know what he is called? How do we know, even if we’re not allowed to use it, what name we are not supposed to use? My friend rightly answered, ‘it has been revealed’. Yahweh is God’s self-revelation of his name. And the only way we are going to know anything about God is if he reveals things about himself to us.
So, to come back to our question about the trinity, how do we know whether there is one God or many? How do we know if there is one God in three persons, three separate gods or one unitarian God? We know, fundamentally, by what he reveals about himself in the scriptures. What is knowable about God is what he reveals about himself.
So, when it comes to the trinity, why do I believe it? Not, fundamentally, because I think it makes sense. Though, I do think it makes sense. I believe it, principally, because that is what God has revealed about himself. He speaks of himself as one God who subsists as three persons. Whether I can fully wrap my head around that or not is not the point. I do think more of us probably could wrap our heads around more of it than we dare to try. But what we know, and believe, isn’t mainly about how well we understand it, but about what God has ultimately revealed.
Why has God revealed himself to be one God in three persons? Essentially because that is what he is like. And what evidence beyond his self-revelation is there that it is so? The Christian gospel falls apart without it. We cannot make sense of the gospel without a Father, Son and Holy Spirit who are all fully God, co-equally and yet distinct persons. The implications abound. This is how God has revealed himself and the consequences of that self-revelation are gospel central.