God in Three Persons

Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:4b-9, John 14:8-17

When we hear the phrase, "God in three persons," we immediately think of the Trinity – the church doctrine sharply distinguishing Christian faith from Judaism and Islam. Some Christians are so concerned with defending what is now often called the "triune God" that they say Genesis 1:26 shows God speaking to Jesus and the Holy Spirit, when God says: "Let us make humankind in our image."

Of course, the notion of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit having a chat during creation is absurd. Such a literal reading of the biblical story demeans the insight that is revealed in the phrase "God in three persons." To speak of God in this way is not to pose a riddle about three in one, but to make an audacious claim that God can be known and loved in the way that we, who are persons, know and love one another.

Throughout the Bible God acts in ways that are characteristically human. God begins creation by speaking to other heavenly beings. And then, in Genesis 2, God talks and walks in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. In the remainder of the Hebrew Bible God speaks to prophets, gives commandments, tests people, and helps them in their distress. 

In the New Testament God is not only personal, but becomes a person. The story of Christian scripture is all about God’s presence in Jesus. John 14:8-9 has the disciple Philip say to Jesus, "Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." And Jesus replies, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father."

Moreover, Jesus promises the disciples that God will be present, as Holy Spirit, in the life of the church. "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you and he will be in you." (Jn. 14:15-17) We are so familiar with this language that we fail to see what an astounding claim this is. The New Testament says God will be present in the persons who make up the church – in folks like us! The Christian challenge to all religion looking for God in the supernatural is that God is in every human person!

For Jews and Muslims, the Christian teaching of the Trinity is idolatry, because God is One and cannot physically be present in a person. God is immortal, so God cannot be a mortal person. God is all-powerful, so God cannot be a person subject to disease and pain. God is ruler of all, so God could not have been a man ruled by other men. For Jews and Muslims, God has personal attributes, but God cannot "be" incarnate in a human person.

Christians answer that God can choose to be human, because God is God. God is free, to be what God wants to be and to do what God wants to do. God is love, and love is what human life is all about. God is consciousness and the source of human consciousness. In the Christian story, the God of the Jews is known to be the God of all people by becoming a human person who lives for all others.

We need to remember, of course, that language about God is always metaphorical. A metaphor involves using a word that designates one thing for another. Every statement about God uses human images to speak of the divine. For instance, when Jesus calls God “Abba,” Aramaic for father, he uses a word for his human father to say something about God. Praying to God as "Our Father" does not mean God is actually our father, but expresses our perception and experience of God as like a loving father. This is metaphorical or figurative language.

Claiming that God became fully human in Jesus is not a factual statement that could have been verified by a first century medical exam or videotape, if the technology had then been available. Proclaiming that "God was in Christ" is a metaphorical statement that can only be verified in our lives. Christian teaching about "God in three persons" has nothing to do with conversations in heaven among the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity has to do with the different experiences of God, which we encounter in scripture and in the life of faith.

So, put aside the puzzle of the Trinity and accept that the Trinity is metaphorical language about the rich, personal, human experience of God, which the life, death and continuing love of Jesus stirred up among Jews and Gentiles in the first century. Stop pondering the "triune" riddle, and instead acknowledge the wonder and mystery of the biblical story. The New Testament claims that love moves God to be human, and that love moves humans to embrace God. Our choice, the choice of faith, involves living this story, in our own ways, in our own time.

The New Testament doesn’t give us a list of rules for doing this, nor does it teach a set of beliefs that will "make us right" with God. Mostly, the New Testament tells stories – the gospel stories of Jesus and the disciples, and then stories of the apostles. In stories of persons – stories that are not necessarily historical but are set "in" history – the church tries to pass on what Jesus Christ, its founding metaphor, has meant for others and might mean for us. The meaning is in the medium. The truth of the story is in the telling, the hearing, and the living of the story.

The outrageous Christian story is that God, Creator and Sustainer of the universe, suffered and died in the life of a poor person belonging to an oppressed people. The resurrection triumph does not diminish the audacity of the statement made about God in the gospel story of the incarnation. In Christ, God is not to be found in the pleasures of religious practice, but in the plight of impoverished persons. In Jesus Christ, God does not ask that we believe rightly, but that we live faithfully. In Jesus, God does not demand pious worship, but commands that we love God and our neighbors and our enemies.

The story in the Christian Bible is about God’s love for each and every human person, and the love of Jesus for his followers and for their enemies, and the love of Christians who make this wondrous story their own. 

May 25, 2003

 Bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016