Trinity: Persons, Not ‘Parts’
JULY 13, 2020
The very first course I had in Systematic Theology was in 2001.
I was a student at North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina. My teacher was a gentleman named Walter Johnson. Dr. Johnson was a tall man, well-bearded, and wore round glasses. (Standard theologian attire). He was very bright and had a wonderful way of helping us students really grasp the content of what we were studying day in and day out. Dr. Johnson was the first person to press me (and probably most of my classmates) to think and articulate myself much more specifically than I had up to that point regarding the Christian faith. Like my cluttered shed out back; there were Bible words that were in my vocabulary that needed attention and I suppose this will always be the case. Some of those words needed to be thrown out (Rapture!) Others needed shaping up. There were also a few (not many!) that were perfectly fine, in need of no repair.
For example, God. When I’d say “God“, it needed some shaping up. I mostly meant God the Father. This was good, not great. It was good because when I said “God” I was not thinking of Allah, Vishnu, the Dali Lama, an impersonal space deity, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or any other religious idea about the divine. I was vaguely thinking of the God described in the Old and New Testaments. This was good but still wildly incomplete (and I fully acknowledge that to this day, my thoughts remain incomplete. I cannot and will never be able to think at once about all of who God is, what he has done, or will do. He is omniscient. I can’t find my keys on a regular basis). Though I believed in Christ his Son and the Holy Spirit, it wasn’t natural for me to think much of the Trinity. One day Dr. Johnson pointed this idea out to me in class. I said, “Well, yes. Of course, I believe in the other parts of God.” He stopped, looked at me, and kindly said,
““Parts? What do you mean by ‘parts’? God doesn’t have ‘parts.’ God is a Person and Persons. God doesn’t come in ‘parts.’”
That may sound a bit pedantic to some. (And believe me, some theologians appear to have minored in pedantic studies). But he wasn’t being unnecessarily punctilious. He was helping me big time. He was good theology. That rainy, Thursday South Carolina morning at 11:00 A.M. he was teaching me to think about what the Bible says and to use words that the Bible itself uses to describe God. “Parts” wasn’t the right word to use when describing God. Person(s)? Now that’s a good word. A better word. A truer word. A clearer word.
The God of the Christian faith is a personal God, a knowable God, a relational God. Ontologically speaking, the Trinity is a loving, harmonious, glorious relationship (perichoresis). God relates not only amongst the members of the Trinity but to creation in general, and to his children uniquely. God isn’t to be broken into parts like some impersonal, nonliving, machine that can be disassembled, studied, and put back together. God is eternal, lacking nothing, unchanging, and has no weakness in himself… with the exception of the ministry of Christ; in which the eternal Son humbled himself … but that discussion belongs over in the field of Christology… and see? We’re off to another doctrine altogether! Isn’t theology fantastic?!
In short, be reminded today that God is personal, relational, and beautiful. In His grace, he has reached out to us. Give yourself a full, undistracted 60 seconds to sit still and be mindful of our great God who knows us and invites us to know him.
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