The conception of God as Trinity has always been both central and problematic to Christianity, yet "Three persons in one God" summarizes biblical revelation about the nature of the Godhead. Externally, this conceptualization of God has caused the other two monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam, to accuse Christianity of being polytheistic. Internally, ever since the early Christian Church chose this Trinitarian formula to best express what the Bible revealed about God, no doctrine has seemed more essential to the Christian conceptualization of God. At the same time, the doctrine of the Trinity has been repeatedly attacked as an illogical misrepresentation of God by various determined minorities.
The Adventist Shift To Trinitarianism
In early nineteenth century America, the Christian Connection, a small denomination which for a time counted Joseph Bates and James White among its ministers, was one such anti-Trinitarian minority. As leaders in the little flock that grew and eventually organized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Bates and White contributed to an anti-Trinitarian overtone in the formative years of the movement. Over time, however, this early aversion to Trinitarian theology was replaced with the recognition that though the scriptures do not use the term Trinity, the descriptions of God given in Scripture call for just such a conception. So during the 1890s, when the Adventist understanding of Jesus Christ was heightened and The Desire of Ages was written, most Seventh-day Adventists came to a Trinitarian understanding of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I believe it was a healthy process which caused many of the early Adventist leaders to initially reject the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. They viewed this doctrine as coming from tradition rather than from the Bible. Furthermore, some of them confused the Trinitarian formula of three persons in one God with the modalistic conceptualization of God as one person in three modes. Joseph Bates wrote that he could never accept that Jesus Christ and the Father were one and the same person. This initial rejection set a healthy hermeneutic of not accepting Christian tradition as authoritative, but instead, only accepting doctrine as they understood it from the Bible. Thus, when the Adventist Church turned to a Trinitarian understanding of God, it was because they believed it to be the best representation of all that the scriptures revealed about God.
Such a shift in the conception of God has implications for how one relates to God, and also to how one perceives salvation. Viewing God as a Heavenly Trio of three equal persons making up a single Godhead has far-reaching ramifications for the doctrines of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and salvation and these will be discussions for future blog postings. I would like to focus here on the paradoxical Trinitarian formula of three in one and the ramifications this has regarding the place of human logic in the interpretation and systematization of revealed truths found in the Bible.
Revelation And Logic
That three are one is a logical impossibility. It defies mathematical logic conceived as far back as Pythagorus. It also defies Aristotelian logic. Arius was right in asserting that you cannot logically conceive of the transcendent One as three. Plato conceived of the creative demiurge who expressed divine immanence not as the indivisible One, but as the divisible, and decidedly subordinate and unequal, Two. So why did the early church conceptualize God as three in one?
First, and most simply, because the writers of the New Testament so clearly portrayed Jesus Christ as God along with the Father. Further and deeper exploration of the biblical teaching finds both the oneness and the threeness of God in Scripture. The oneness is clear in passages like Deut 6:4, which the Jews use as their shema, or daily prayer, “Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The threeness can be seen in passages like the baptism of Christ in Matt 3:16, 17, where the Father, the Son and the Spirit are individually described as simultaneously active. It is also evident in the great commission in Matt 28:19, where Jesus commands his disciples to make disciples and baptize them "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." This became the standard benediction in the Christian Church. Thus two great prayers from the Bible, the shema and the benediction, describe God as one and as three
In spite of human logic, the Bible insists that God is one and that God is three. Do we give priority to logic or revelation?
Trinity: Solution Or Paradox?
Expressed this starkly, I must conclude that I will follow revelation before logic. Any other answer creates a theology built from the bottom up, a human understanding based on perception and analogy. On the other hand, placing divine revelation before logic allows for a theology revealed from above, from God’s self-revelation. Granted, this revelation comes through human agents and human language so that we are but “seeing through a glass darkly,” and “knowing partially” (1 Cor 13:12); yet I would rather see partially the true God who is far above human conception than to claim a full view of a humanly constructed divinity. I’ll take God’s self-revelation through human agents rather than my own faulty and incomplete logic any day.
Thus, the early church faced the revealed paradox that God is one, and yet God is three. They did not resolve the paradox. They simply named it.
Trinity is not a solution. It is simply a one-word designation that holds the paradox intact: Three in one, our Triune God.