Tracing the Trinity

26 June 2024

m.rizal abdi

How come something that wasn’t written in the Bible became the core of Christianity teaching?

The doctrine of the Trinity is foundational to the Christian faith and the most prominent distinctive aspect of Christianity. Interestingly, the word “Trinity” is never found in the Bible. Yet, the absence of the term doesn’t necessarily mean the doctrine is unbiblical. The essence and the logic of its doctrine are biblical. Moreover, under the light of the doctrine of the Trinity, Christians perform their daily basis in understanding and manifesting the Word of God. This article tries to examine how the doctrine of the Trinity reflects what the bible said and, more importantly, how different kinds of Christians understood the doctrine in diverse ways. The discussion would help us to identify the advantages as well as the disadvantages of the doctrine of the Trinity for Christians. 

Understanding the Doctrine of Trinity 

The doctrine of the Trinity refers to the concept of God that is described as the unity of three different “entities” or “persons”—God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit—in one divinity substance. Jon Hoover showed the classical understanding of trinity as three people who are, “equal and coeternal, and they are distinguished one from another by their origins” (Hoover, 2009:3). However, this understanding is often accused of compromising God’s unity and entailing “tri-theism.” Of course, Christianity which also strongly embraced monotheism refuses that accusation. Jon Hoover lists three major issues on the Trinity that are often accused by others, especially Muslims: “Qur’anic criticism, Trinitarian doctrinal development as a corruption of the message of Jesus, and rational deficiencies in the classical Trinitarian formulations” (2009:1). Some Christians respond to the issues by stating that the doctrine of Trinity is beyond rationality. Should be noted that the Christians’ understanding of the relation to the Trinity’s personhood is different from what the Muslims often presume. Rather than a biological bond like humans, as its name suggests, the relation between the Father and Jesus is theological attribution. Thus, understanding the doctrine only by rationality would lead to a dead end. Yet, Ibn Taymiyya, a Muslim scholar, criticized this argument by stating that the doctrine is clearly “opposed to reason” rather than “beyond reason”.

Before drawing a hasty conclusion, it is important to take a look at what the Bible says about the Trinity and see how the doctrine of the Trinity corresponds with the teaching of Christianity. As shown by Hoover (2009:8), Christianity has a solid scriptural foundation on monotheistic teaching (Deut. 6:4, cf. Isa. 44:6, Mark 12:29, 1 Cor. 8:4-5) as well as condemning idolatry (Ex. 20:4, Deut. 5:8, Isa. 44:7-20). Interestingly, even though it doesn’t mention the word “trinity”, the Bible does indicate the oneness and “threeness” of God as recognition of the doctrine of the Trinity. “Therefore go and make disciples of nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). The word “name” was written in singular, while the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equally written as divine being. Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity implies that these three are one God. 

More importantly, other than verbatim justification, it is essential to understand how the Trinity functions as guidance for Christian devotion. Each “person” in the Trinity works together and is always involved in each divine action of creation, salvation, and empowerment. Thus, even though each person has their distinctive act (the Father as God’s transcendence over the world, Jesus as God’s involvement through history in the world, and the Holy Spirit as God’s empowerment along the world), the doctrine of the Trinity implies that the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit works together in every act. In other words, the incarnation of Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross is not solely the work of Jesus “by himself”. The Father acts as the revealer who unveils Himself through revelation in history by the incarnation of Jesus. At the same time, the Holy Spirit guides people in recognizing the event as a holy revelation. Karl Barth, as cited by Hoover, highlighted the Trinity model as “the Revealer, Revelation, and Being Revealed” (2009:11). Hence, within this framework, every single Christian devotion would never be apart from the doctrine of Trinity.   

One Doctrine, Diverse Meanings

Should be noted that there is no single understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity, let alone Jesus' atonement as an inseparable part of the Trinity. Denny Weaver points out several motifs of the Jesus atonement which drew from two main questions: Who or what needs the death of Jesus?; and  Who arranges for or is responsible for the death of Jesus?  (Weaver, 2001:5). Before answering the questions, Weaver describes the classical interpretation theory of the atonement motifs: the satisfaction atonement. Jesus’, God’s most precious possession, death is the means to satisfy divine law as well as bear the punishment we deserve. However, this understanding leaves the image of God as violence and abuse instead of love and compassion. Dealing with the contradiction, Weaver proposes a new interpretation of classic Christus Victor called narrative Christus Victor that perceives the death of Jesus not as a divine requirement but as a distinguishing element of God’s rule from the devil’s (2001:29). The core of the atonement is not the death but the resurrection of Jesus that shows non-violence action and God’s love. Hence, different interpretations of atonement would lead to different reflections and practices of Christians. 

Corresponding to Weaver’s interpretations of atonement, Gorringe underlined various main metaphors on how salvation works from Paul’s four metaphors toward Jesus atonement: redemption, justification, sacrifice, and reconciliation, and Barth’s emphasis on forgiveness (2004:372).  The difference between each metaphor lies in how they emphasize a particular aspect of Jesus' sacrifices and interpret it. Rooted in the political situations, the redemption metaphor reads the atonement as a way to release from bondage, oppression, and slavery while in the justification metaphor, the atonement serves as the way for God to maintain social order and balance. Similarly, the sacrifice metaphors drew its understanding from the idea of the scapegoat mechanism in dealing with mimetic violence. The difference between the last two metaphors resides in God’s role in the atonement. In the first one, God serves as a judge who takes His judgment toward human sin by Himself while the latter demonstrates how God needs to pay for the unbearable sin of humans through the “God-man” incarnation.  The last Paul’s metaphor, reconciliation, understands salvation as the acceptance of alienated people which exemplifies the human relationship with the relation with God. Moreover, inspired by Phil. 2:5 ff, Gorringe proposes his metaphor, solidarity, in perceiving the Jesus sacrifice as God’s act to "understand" our suffering as solidarity action (2004:373). 

Interestingly, each metaphor contains different political motifs and significance that in turn lead to the diversity of Christians in responding to the world situation. The redemption and justification metaphor clearly states the situation of an unjust world and, reflecting on Jesus' act of salvation, it suggests that Christians break the domination system and restore the right order. Within this reading, Martin Luther King jr (MLK) proposed his gospel of freedom in opposing the unjust law (King, 1963:2). Responding to the statement of fellow clergymen accusing his anti-discrimination action as “unwise and untimely,” MLK told a story about one of his white brothers from Texas who sent a letter that suggests him to be more patient because in the end, as the history promised, all Christian would get the equality in the end. Realizing there was a tragic misled interpretation of Christian tenets, MLK answered those theological suggestions as well as advocated his political movement by proposing theological arguments too.

This understanding is analogous to Gutierrez’s notion of liberation theology. Looking at the daily life of marginalized Christian in Latin America and the Caribbean who live in poverty and oppression, Gutierrez formulates liberation theology as “a way to understand the grace and salvation of Jesus in the context of the present and from the situation of the poor” (Guiterrez, 2007:19). By putting God’s will into practice, liberation theology draws more genuine solidarity to the poor as well as helps the Christian to correct the possible misled intention.  

On the other hand, the justification as well as the sacrifice metaphor could also give light to the act of forgiveness as the way to overcome the injustice world. Rather than dealing the injustice in adversarial ways, Anabaptist theology restores justice by giving forgiveness and Anselmian theology teaches about the costliness of forgiveness which is inspired by Luke 23:34. Within this light, the liberation of theology could manifest as the act of gratuitous love of God which “translates into acts of love towards our neighbor, and especially the weakest among them” (Guiterrez, 2007:37) and also and also ‘the enemy’.  In fact, when MLK strongly proposed to oppose the unjust law, he stressed that it should be done “openly, lovely,… and willing to take the penalty,” (King, 1963: 9) or in other words non-violence act, like Jesus' sacrifice.

Take Trinity into Account

The absence of the term “Trinity” in the bible doesn’t necessarily mean the doctrine is unbiblical. In fact, not only recognizes and indicates the doctrine of the Trinity in its verse, but the bible embraces the core idea of the Trinity where the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit work together as inseparable entities through the act of creation, salvation, and empowerment. Furthermore, the understanding of the Trinity becomes the foundation for every Christian in devoting themselves to the tenets and practices. Through Paul’s metaphor of Jesus' atonement and also the teaching of Liberation Theology, we can see how the doctrine of the Trinity is always underneath every Christian act as well as guides them to overcome and respond to the injustice world. However, there is no single interpretation of the Trinity. Thus, the same doctrine would lead to various, sometimes contradicting, understandings: Jesus' sacrifice could be perceived as a revolutionary act or a non-violence action through forgiveness at the same time. Meanwhile, as the most prominent distinctive aspect of Christianity, the doctrine of the Trinity is so vulnerable to being accused of “three-ism” or irrational. Of course, this theological debate would never end until the end of day and sometimes there are theological questions that are left open just for the faith to fill in that gap. Moreover, it’s more productive to see how the transcendence of the Father, the involvement of Jesus through history, and the interminable guidance of the Holy Spirit inspire the Christian to overcome the injustice world as well as become the point of departure and destination in every Christian life.