As a theologian, I am well aware that there are some debates and some questions that simply have no practical purpose. “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” “Can God create a rock so heavy that even He cannot move it?” Questions like these can rattle around in your noggin, but they ultimately do not impact how you live one bit. For some, the doctrine of the Trinity falls into the same category. The idea that God is One and Three is a bit confusing, so much so that one of the Church Fathers, Augustine, has been credited as saying, “If you deny the Trinity you will lose your soul. If you try and explain it you will lose your mind.”
“If you deny the Trinity you will lose your soul. If you try and explain it you will lose your mind.”Augustine
Yet I have come to find the Trinity to be a most practical doctrine for discipleship and Christian living. Ultimately, what you think about God determines how you live. This is because we are both created in the image of God and are advancing towards the image of God.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,Genesis 1:26-27 English Standard Version
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Whatever the imago dei means, there is a sense in which we resemble God. Who He is, determines who we ought to be. Not only this, but we are also advancing towards the image of God. We are becoming more like Him as we grow in relationship with King Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.2 Corinthians 3:18 English Standard Version (Emphasis mine)
3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.2 Peter 1:3-4 English Standard Version (Emphasis mine)
So who God is determines who we are and who we are becoming. And so who is the God in whose image we are made? This is where the doctrine of the Trinity is so important.
Every once in awhile, debates about the Trinity spring up in certain circles of academia and spill over into social media. One of the current debates revolves around the issues of authority and submission within the Godhead. Some argue that from eternity, the Father is always exercising authority and the Son and Spirit are always submissive to that authority. This idea shows up under various names (ESS – Eternal Submission/Subordination of the Son, EFS – Eternal Functional Submission, ERAS – Eternal Relationships of Authority and Submission). The short version is that the core of who God is, His defining characteristics, is hierarchy, power, control, and submission.
If this is the case, then to be made in the image of God and to be growing into that image, we must seek to live out our proper roles in social hierarchy. Most often, the practical application of this is seen in the home. Men are the head and must live out of their call to lead. Women and children are to live out their call to submit. However, practically this should apply to all human relationships if true. In the time of feudal Europe, the nature of God was used to justify the social hierarchy of kings and nobility over serfs and peasants.
Yet is this accurate? Not according to the historic creeds of the Church. Through the early debates over the doctrine of the Trinity, the early Church came to the conclusion that Father, Son, and Spirit are co-equal and co-eternal. They share the one divine essence, but are only distinct in their persons.
Some would stop here and say that this all we can say about the Father, Son, and Spirit. However, I believe scripture goes further.
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.1 John 4:7-8 English Standard Version
John tells us that God is love; not God is authority and submission. God is love. The core of who He is is love. Father, Son, and Spirit all share the common essence defined by the character of love.
The early church used the term perichoresis (circle-dance) to describe the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit. Rather than being a top-down hierarchy, the Trinity is a dance of three Persons who give and receive love from each other. God is not some egoist or radical individualist. No, the God is a community of love. The Father is radically for the Son. The Son is radically for the Father. The Spirit is radically for the Father and the Son.
This is the God who said, “Let us make man in our image.” We are made for loving community, a community in which we love and serve each other in the way of Jesus. We do not lord over others in hierarchy, but we stoop down to serve each other as Jesus did.
So rather than ignore the great doctrine of the Trinity, let us rightly understand it and seek to live out its practical implications.