The Doctrine of the Trinity

Christians are monotheists; we believe in one God. We believe that the one God is a triune God existing as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The earliest formal creed of the Church dating from the Fourth Century is called the Nicene Creed. It asserts belief in one God who is known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This belief that God is three in one is referred to as the Trinity.

The Trinity a problematic doctrine. For one thing the word Trinity never appears in the Bible. The term is not even used in the earliest creeds of the Church. The first use the word Trinity I can find in an official creed of the Church doesn’t occur until the Second Helvetic Confession in the sixteenth century. Furthermore, the doctrine of the Trinity opens up Christians to the accusation that we are really tritheists.

Since the doctrine of the Trinity is so difficult to understand, it is rarely addressed from the pulpit. If you’ve gone to church most of your life and listened to countless sermons, as I have, you have most likely heard very few sermons on the Trinity. This year I was present for one sermon on “Trinity Sunday” and read another. Neither sermon tried to explain what is meant by the word Trinity other than mentioning that we understand one God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I don’t recall ever reading a book about the Trinity.

In spite of these difficulties, fearless Karl Barth, the man who was a street fighter as a teenager and who later, as a university professor, publicly opposed Hitler, is not afraid to write at length about the Trinity. Starting with Chapter II in volume one of Church Dogmatics Barth writes 194 pages about the Triune God. In Volume 2 (which I’m reading now) he continues his writing about the Trinity for at least 400 more pages as he focuses on the incarnation of the Word and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

One of my main take aways thus far from reading Church Dogmatics is a new understanding and appreciation of the Triune God we Christians worship. Here are a few things I think I understand from Barth’s view of the Trinity:

1) He says that revelation is the basis of the Trinity and in a full page (p. 313) of small print he references the following Biblical verses which support the idea of the Trinity: Isaiah 61:1f, Matthew 28:19, Romans 1:1-4 and 11:38, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, I John 5:7f, 1 Peter 1:2, Revelation 1:4, 2 Corinthians 13:12, Mark 1:9f, Jude 20-21, 1 Corinthians 12:4f, Ephesians 4:4f. These are among the biblical passages that suggest that God is a triune entity. They are not proof texts, but part of the evidence that led theologians to use the term Trinity. For instance, Matthew 28:19 is a statement from Jesus instructing his followers to go into all the world and make disciples baptizing them “in the name [not names] of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

2) Barth acknowledges that the doctrine of the Trinity is a problem.

3) He says that there is no good analogy to the Trinity, but the best analogy is the Word of God which comes to us in three forms: spoken word in preaching, written word in the Bible, and revealed word in God’s specific acts of unveiling. (I always thought that water, H2O, was a good analogy to the Trinity because it exists in three forms – solid, liquid and gas. But I think Barth doesn’t approve of this analogy because he persistently and radically asserts that there is no continuity between our human thinking and God’s being.)

4) Barth prefers to speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three modes of being rather than three persons.

5) Professor Barth sides with the Western Church regarding the clause “from the Father and the Son” (Latin: ex Patre Filioque) in the Nicene Creed. This little phrase is the center of a huge theological dispute between the Eastern (Orthodox) Church and the Western (Catholic) Church. If I can muster sufficient courage, I will write about this phrase in the future.

6) “God is always a mystery” (p 321). I remember my college pastor, Don Williams saying, “You think you understand the doctrine of the trinity? Oh, no you don’t.”

Finally, in one of his long small print sections, Barth quotes (in Latin) one of the early Protestant Reformers named Melanchthon who wrote, “We will have done better to adore the mysteries of the divinity than to investigate them.” Although Barth doesn’t agree with this cautionary statement, I think it is sound advice.

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