The Central Christian Mystery
There’s a classic riddle about a man who dies in an empty room with no door and no windows. He has been stabbed through the heart, and is lying in a pool of his own blood and water. How did he die? All the usual suspects are ruled out. It couldn’t have been suicide, because the room was empty. Where is the murder weapon? But no one else could have done it, they couldn’t get in or out of the room. It’s a mystery! Unless, of course, you’re a riddle buff, and you have figured out that the man did in fact stab himself, with an icicle. That explains a lot. No one else had to get in or out, because the man did it himself. There was no murder weapon, because it melted into the puddle of water mixed with his blood. What you have is still a mystery, to be sure. You still don’t know why the man killed himself, how he got the icicle, or how he got into the room. But this one big mystery makes sense of a whole bunch of other little mysteries. What we want to suggest it that belief in God is precisely this kind of mystery for the Christian imagination. You may not have everything about God figured out. And we’re certainly not going to get it all figured out in the following pages. Our God is a mystery, but a mystery that makes sense of a lot of the rest of our experience. Later we will want to talk about what exactly we mean by this: God is mystery and explains the mystery of our experience, but first we want to talk about the particular way in which Christians have understood this mystery, a sort of framework within which to have the discussion.
The framework I am talking about, of course, is the doctrine of the Trinity, the peculiarly Christian way of explaining the mystery of God. In his twin articles “The Logic of Trinitarian Doctrine” and “Historical Perspectives on Trinitarian Doctrine” Phillip Cary outlines this essential teaching of the Church, and shows how it was defended in Church history against other, heretical views of God. We will try, all too simply, to summarize his work in this section.
Now, this whole project may seem like an oxymoron: explain the mystery of God? Isn’t that exactly what a mystery is, something that cannot be explained? Perhaps it would be helpful here to distinguish between the doctrine of the Trinity and the Trinitarian Godhead himself. The latter is a mystery that is beyond our rational categories. God is not only inexplicable (no able to be explained), but the classical Christians terminology is that God is ineffable (not able to be spoken about). We cannot formulate words or thoughts that make sense of the mystery we call God. The doctrine of the Trinity, on the other hand, is human words meant to be understood by humans. To understand the doctrine of the Trinity is not to have understood God per se, it is rather to understand the framework laid down for us by the ancient Church within which any discussion of God that can be called Christian must take place. Thus while the Trinity itself is a mystery that will always be beyond our understanding, the doctrine of the Trinity is actually rather simple to understand.
The doctrine of the Trinity does not require the use of any metaphors. God is not like a cherry pie with its crumbly crust, cherries, and goopy stuff. Neither is God like an egg, an apple, or the three forms of H2O. In fact, later we will see that each of these metaphors is misleading and all move in the direction of a particular Trinitarian heresy. All we need to understand the doctrine of the Trinity are seven simple statements.
- The Father is God.
- The Son is God.
- The Holy Spirit is God.
- The Son is not the Father.
- The Father is not the Holy Spirit.
- The Holy Spirit is not the Son.
- There is only one God.
See, it’s that simple. Not only did we not need culinary metaphors like eggs or cherry pie to state the doctrine of the Trinity, we also didn’t need abstract metaphysical concepts or extra biblical language like ousia, essence, or hypostases. Just three propositions that confess the name of the Triune God, and thus ground the doctrine in its biblical roots; three negations of identity (i.e the Father is not identical with, but distinct from the Son); and the creedal anthem of classic Jewish monotheism: There is only one God. A second-grader could understand the doctrine of the Trinity. Indeed, this is the kind of thing we ask second-graders to understand all the time. Think of the doctrine of the Trinity (remember that we are distinguishing the doctrine of the Trinity from the Trinity himself) like grammar rules. Theological discourse—discourse about God—is beautiful and complex like a poem. Doctrine is like the grammar that creates the structure and order within which this poetry becomes beautiful and complex.
So, one rule of Trinitarian grammar is that, when talking about God, we avoid the use of plurals. Most Christian liturgical writings, like the Bible, only refer to God in the singular, even when emphasizing the three persons of the Trinity. So, in the Anglican liturgy found in the Book of Common Prayer, the priest begins “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” To which the congregation responds, “And blessed be his kingdom now and forever.” Though we’ve named the three distinct members of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the rulership of the kingdom, we say, belongs to him, to God. You’ll notice that in our formulation of the doctrine we don’t even use the number 3. Some have called God “three in one,” which may be an acceptable title for the doctrine of the Trinity, but it is not a proper way of stating the doctrine. There may be three peas in a pod, for instance, but this is not comparable to the Holy Trinity. But here we go trying to fit God into a culinary analogy again.
The reason for this grammatical emphasis on singularity in reference to God is a strange effect of this peculiarly Christian doctrine has on the concept God. When the Jew or Muslim uses the word God, she knows exactly what she’s talking about. For the Christian, on the other hand, because of the doctrine of the Trinity, the concept God is not quite so stable. According to Cary,
The peculiar logic of the seven propositions makes this vagueness and instability inevitable: the first three propositions refer to each member of the Trinity as God, and then proposition 7 claims there is only one God, which implies that the Trinity as a whole—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is God. Thus the term “God” is hard to pin down, because it floats between four possible reference points: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the whole Trinity.
The vagueness of the concept God in Christian doctrine isn’t a problem really. It just points to the fact that the One whom we Christians call God is represented most concretely in the three members of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The problems arise when we get into the habit of talking about “God” generally with no reference to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When we do, we lose sight of the particularities of the Christian doctrine and run the risk of forgetting who it is we’re actually talking about when we talk about God.
Each of the divine attributes works the same way with respect to the members of the Trinity. Thus when we talk about God as, say, Creator, we do not mean just the Father. We do not mean, for example, that the Son lacks the creativity, eternality, preeminence, or love entailed in the title Creator. Indeed, Nicene Christians confess that God the Father created “all things, visible and invisible.” But Paul originally applied this phrase to Christ (Col. 1:16). Cary says “this transfer of language from Son to Father is entirely appropriate, for the Father did indeed create all things, visible and invisible—and he did so through the Son.” And of course the same can be said of the Holy Spirit. This is an important point to which we will later return, but suffice it to say for now that when we talk about Creation, we need to be careful not to lose sight of the particularly Christian meaning of the statement: “God is the Creator.” So, Trinitarian faith has a very peculiar grammar. It also has a very peculiar logic, or, more accurately, a peculiar arithmetic.
Here, we will need to introduce some more abstract metaphysical concepts. So far, we have referred to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as “members” of the Trinity. But Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not members of the Trinity the way your tonsils or your appendix are members of your body. The tonsils and appendix are parts of the human body. If Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were three parts of God, then there would be no logical peculiarity about the doctrine of the Trinity. The three parts add up to a whole God. But the doctrine of the Trinity does not work this way. In fact, that’s a perfect way of stating one Trinitarian heresy, tripartism. Most of our culinary analogies for the Trinity fall into the trap of tripartism, (shell, white, and yoke are three parts of an egg). Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not parts of a whole. We do not say that the Son is “part of God,” but that “the Son is God.” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are complete individual beings. The proper theological terminology for a complete individual being is the Greek word “hypostasis,” or if you prefer, person. We want to be careful, if we use the term person, not to think of the modern notion of person which includes certain physical and psychological characteristics. When theologians use the term persons to talk about the Trinity, they are simply alluding to the Latin translation of hypostases, meaning nothing more than complete individual beings. Being aware of that, we will use the term persons to reduce the amount of confusing technical jargon. The Trinity is three complete individual beings, three Persons, that is One God.
Once we have that straightened out, it’s not hard to see what’s so strange about the math here. Christian confess three distinct individuals as God (statements 1-3), and then say that there is only one God (statement 7), as though when we talk about the Trinity we forget how to do simple arithmetic.
How can we do this? How can we say that a complete individual being called the Father is God, that two other distinct complete individual beings called the Son and the Holy Spirit are each God, and that there is only one God. It’s so strange! Given the first six statements of the doctrine why wouldn’t we just say that there are three Gods?
The most straight forward answer, of course, is that all of the earliest Christians were Jews. They were already committed to the most fundamental belief of Judaism: God is one. So, not surprisingly, Tritheism, belief in three distinct Gods, is also deemed a heresy. But fortunately for us, early Christians were also surrounded with Greek and Roman forms of paganism, and thus had to formulate a logical defense for the peculiar math of the doctrine of the Trinity. Notice that there is no logical problem with the first six statements. Even a pagan for instance could say:
- Zeus is god.
- Apollo is god.
- Poseidon is god.
- Zeus is not Apollo…
The logical (or mathematical) contradiction arises when we say that there is one God. So wouldn’t the logic of the doctrine of the Trinity have to lead us away from Jewish monotheism? How could Christians possibly have responded to pagan objections?
Why not three Gods?
First I’ll tell you how they did not respond. They did not say that there is only one God because each of the persons of the Trinity shares the same essence. Essence is another metaphysical concept that refers to what a thing fundamentally is. Having a particular essence makes a thing the particular kind of thing that it is. So there are millions of different chairs in the world, but no matter what the differences, they are all essentially chairs. They all have the essence: chair. So ancient Christians did not say that there is one God because all three persons of the Trinity share the same essence. They do of course say that all three persons of the Trinity have the same essence, but that’s not why we can say that there is only one God. Take for instance three mice. Though there are three distinct mice, they all share the essence: mouse. So does that mean there is only one mouse? Of course not, that’s absurd! We just said there are three mice. So why did the Church Fathers bother saying that all three persons of the Trinity share the same essence at all? They say this to defend against another Trinitarian heresy, Arianism or Subordinationism, which asserts that the Son and the Holy Spirit are not in essence God the Creator, but are essentially creatures. They are at best a lesser divinity, or may become God through some process of adoption, but they do not share the essence: God. Well, orthodox Christians won’t have it. They say Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are of one essence, or in Greek ousia. But this still doesn’t get us out of the woods. We still have the problem of how we can say that three distinct individual beings are One God.
The answer that ancient Christians gave is that each of the three hypostases of the Trinity has the same qualities. A hypostasis is a complete individual being. Essence tells you what kind a thing a hypostasis is. And qualities tell you what is in or about or of a hypostasis. So, the first of our three mice may be fat, brown, and short-haired. All of these—fat, brown, and short-haired—are qualities. Every hypostasis has a set of qualities. So while the first mouse is fat, brown, and short-haired, a second may be thin, white, and long-haired. Now sometimes more than one hypostasis—especially hypostases having the same essence—may share similar qualities. For instance, imagine that all three mice are blind. But still qualities are still technically different, because the blindness that plagues mouse one is not the same blindness that plagues mice two and three, and vice versa. We know this because they are three distinct hypostases, thus they suffer from three distinct blindnesses (have three distinct qualities of blindness). Even if I caught a cold from you, we wouldn’t say that it was the same cold. You have your cold and I have mine. Every hypostasis has qualities distinct from all other hypostases. But the Trinity, say the early Christians, breaks this rule. Each person of the Trinity has the same qualities as the other two. And that is why we can say there is one God. We can explain this further by looking at two special kinds of qualities, namely will and action.
We can easily imagine that each of the three blind mice have different wills. One blind mouse may will to run after a farmer’s wife for the sheer joy of hearing her scream. Another, for fear of certain dreadful consequences, may have no desire to run after or near the farmer’s wife, but, by running away from the cat, may have inadvertently run behind the farmer’s wife who was running from the first blind mouse. And a third, not willing to do any running at all whether after the farmer’s wife or away from the cat, may be dragged by first two into their respective and coincidental chases. The Trinity is not like this.
But imagine that all three blind mice for the same reason will to run after the farmer’s wife. We can image still that their activity is different. One blind mouse may run by her feet, providing ample time for him to scurry away should she bend down to snatch him. A second may run across tables and counter-tops, closer to the farmer’s wife’s grasp, but avoiding the risk of being stomped. Still a third, more a chicken than a mouse, may creep behind the farmer’s wife hiding in every corner, always keeping her within an eye’s shot. Three wills in harmony yielding three different actions. The Trinity is not like this either.
But we can go further. Imagine now that all three of the blind mice will to run after the farmer’s wife and all do so in unison. Three harmonious wills all yielding synchronized action. The Trinity is not like this either. And it’s easy to see why. What we have is still three distinct mice, each distinctly willing to run after the farmer’s wife, resulting in three simultaneous yet distinct chases. If this were the case with the Trinity, we would have a real problem saying that God is Creator. Remember, given the instability of reference of the word God, that to say “God is Creator” is to say “the Father is Creator,” “The Son is Creator,” and “the Holy Spirit is Creator.” If the Trinity were like the three blind mice, we would wind up with three simultaneous and identical, yet utterly distinct creations. But that’s not what we have is it? No, because each of the persons of the Trinity has the exact same qualities—including the same will and actions—as the other two. The Father’s act of creation is the Son’s act of creation. But here we run into another problem: if the will and actions of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not just in sync with one another, but are literally the same will and actions, then why should we even call them distinct individual beings? Have we any grounds for thinking there are three?
You see what happened? As soon as we answer the question why not three Gods we run right into the opposite question: Why three? Here’s how the Church Father’s responded.
The reason we confess three persons of the Trinity and not one is because of the relations of the persons. The Father is Father to the Son, and the Son, son to the Father. The Son is not created, and he is not chronologically subsequent to the Father. Remember that all of the divine attributes apply equally to each of the persons of the Trinity, thus the Son is coeternal with the Father. Rather, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father. It’s an analogy of course, but the idea is that the Father eternally gives his essence (his ousia) to the Son, but sustains no loss of his own being. The Spirit also proceeds eternally from the Father. The Father is sometimes called the source of divinity.
Affirmations and Heresies
So, by way of review, what is it that the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us? And what are the misguided views of God against which it defends? There are two basic affirmations we want to highlight from the doctrine of the Trinity: there is a real oneness and a real threeness in God. A real plurality and a real unity. The insufficient views of God against which the Church Fathers wanted to defend with this doctrine each missed one of the other of these affirmations.
We discussed tritheism, the belief that there are three distinct Gods; and tripartism, that there is one God made up of three parts. These are both heresies, because while they affirm, with the doctrine of the Trinity, the real plurality of God, they deny his unity. On the other hand, there is subordinationism, the belief that the Son and the Holy Spirit are not really God at all, or if they are, they are lesser, or later God than the Father. And there is modalism, the belief that there is one God who presents himself to us in three different ways. These two heresies affirm the unity of God, but deny the plurality. But the Christian doctrine is clear, even if paradoxical: God holds both unity and plurality in dynamic tension. And it is in that tension that we theologians live and move and have our being. Any conversation we can have about God must take place within the framework of this doctrine, and thus must constantly grapple with this tension. So now that we have a framework, let’s have a conversation. What is it exactly that we mean when we say that God is a mystery?
What Kind of Mystery?
We can explain further what we mean by this considering two possible errors that people sometimes make in thinking about the mysteriousness of God. The modern worldview envisages reality having two highly distinct layers: a material one and a spiritual one. For most modern people, God—if there is a God—is “out there” somewhere not connected in any deep sense to creation. Instead, God created the world and subjected it to a set of rules by which it continues in existence, like a watch maker who makes a watch such that the gears do the work of keeping time. Electrons swirl around nuclei repelling and attracting to magnetic poles. Cells divide. Planets orbit around the sun. The whole thing just works. Of course, just as a watchmaker may have to repair a watch, God may at times intervene in his creation in miraculous ways. But, for the most part, if everything is working normally God leaves creation to run itself—a Cosmic Supervisor. This view is called deism, the idea that God is utterly separate from creation. In theological terms, deism affirms the transcendence of God, the doctrine that God is beyond creation. But it ignores the immanence of God, that God is closely and covenantal bound to creation.
In this postmodern world, however, we have reverted to an understanding of the world that is not so bifurcated, more organic. We postmoderners do not imagine that there are two distinct worlds, one physical and one material. Rather, like the ancients, we picture the spiritual breaking into the physical realities of our everyday lives all the time. Demons are exercised in our movies. In our churches we are taught to seek the will of God for common everyday decisions. Angles even play on our baseball teams. In our postmodern world, we are less tempted by deism than by pantheism. From pan meaning “all” and theos meaning “God,” pantheism is the doctrine that God is everything. God can be found in the smell of the sap from a budding tree, by looking into the vast ocean, or in the face of the poor, because God is the trees, the ocean, and the poor. Pantheism, the opposite of deism, affirms divine immanence, but it ignores God’s transcendence. According to Christian theology both deism and pantheism are misunderstandings of God. The Christian tradition affirms that God holds these two: transcendence and immanence in dynamic tension.
The theological term for what we’ve called the dynamic tension of divine transcendence and immanence is ontological disparity. Ontology, from ontos, means having to do with being or reality. The ontological disparity of God means that God is not just a different being from you and me; God is a different kind of being, a different sort of reality. Try this thought experiment: imagine a woman lying on a couch and dreaming of a boy playing of a swing set. Think about the relationship of the boy to the woman. In a certain way of speaking, this is a real boy. He has some reality. He’s a real dream. But now imagine that the woman, startled by a sudden noise, awakes. What happens to the boy? He’s gone. The woman’s being is in no way affected by the boy’s, but his being is utterly dependent upon her. If later in the day she remembers the dream, she thereby brings the boy back in to existence by the mere imposition of her will. She is the source or ground of his being. Now think about the woman’s relationship to you. This is something like what we mean when we talk about the ontological disparity of God. God’s reality is different, deeper, more real than ours. Properly speaking, God is not real. Rocks are real. Trees, birds, humans and dreams are real. God is Reality Itself, and thus all things that are real have their reality in God. In much the same way that the boy’s reality was dependent upon the woman’s and hers upon you, the reality of all real things are dependent upon Reality Itself.
This is a deep and important point as we look forward to the doctrine of creation. Just as the Father bestows his ousia upon the Son and the Holy Spirit, so also the Triune God bestows upon all real things his reality. Creation in no way affects the being of God, but all creation is held in reality by him. We cannot, therefore, think of the God of creation like the maker of a watch or painter of a landscape, whose work’s coming into existence may be dependent upon them, but then has its own reality that can and often does outlast the watchmaker or painter. No, creation is suspended in continued dependence upon God for its existence and reality.
Phillip Cary, “The Logic of Trinitarian Doctrine” in Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship Bulletin
, Sept/Oct 1995; An d “ Historical Perspectives on Trinitarian Doctrine” in Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship Bulletin
, Nov/Dec 1995.
 Book of Common Prayer
 Cary, “Logic,” 3.
 Cary, “Logic,” 4.
 There is some controversy about whether we should say just that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father,” as the Eastern Church’s version of the Nicene Creed has it, or we should say that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son (filioque),” like the Western version. The addition of the filioque into the West emphasizes the Son’s equality of divinity to the Father, against Subordinationism prevalent in the West. The East’s exclusion of the filioque (the original version of the creed) emphasizes the Father as ground, or source of divinity. Either way, the point still stands that we say there are three Persons of the Trinity because each of the Persons stands in a different relations to the others.