Gavin Dunbar on the Doctrine of the Trinity–Knowing the Mystery

When we speak about the doctrine of God the Holy Trinity, we approach with fear and trembling a great mystery. For many modern Christians, any attempt to think about the mystery is considered impious; but this cannot be: because “unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God”. Not to receive this gift of knowledge is the true impiety. And though the mystery ever exceeds our comprehension, yet “now we know in part” however imperfectly, the mystery which God has chosen to reveal to us. This attempt to understand is not an act of pride, but of humility ”“ ”˜standing under’ the bright heaven of divine truth, in openness to its vitalizing gifts.
In explaining the mystery of God, resort is commonly had to the acts of God in history. Thus, for example, the answer to the question about the Apostles’ Creed in the Prayer book Catechism, “What dost thou chiefly learn in these Articles of thy belief? Answer. First, I learn to believe in God the Father, who hath made me, and all the world. Secondly, in God the Son, who hath redeemed me, and all mankind. Thirdly, in God the Holy Ghost, who sanctifieth me, and all the [elect] people of God.” That is to say, the persons of the Holy Trinity are revealed in the acts of God in history, the “economy” of salvation.

This is helpful, and yet a false conclusion may be drawn ”“ that the meaning of “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” is expressed fully in the formula “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier”. The latter phrase speaks of God’s acts in history (in each of which all three persons are involved); the former of God in himself. For that we must engage with the paradoxes of the technical language of theology, developed to uphold the Biblical revelation: that there is but one divine substance, essence, or nature; infinite in power, wisdom, and goodness. Within this unity of substance there is a distinction of persons, each of them fully God, co-equal, co-eternal, consubstantial ”“ and yet “there are not three Gods, but one God”. God is not a committee.

According to Saint Augustine, the best image of the Trinity is in the life of the human soul itself, made in the image of God. When we look at the soul itself, we see a certain image and likeness of God. Robert Crouse summed up Augustine’s teaching: “One says of the soul three things: it is; it knows; and it wills, or loves. And these three powers are one soul: being, knowing, and willing. God is; God knows; and God wills. God eternally begets his Word, the Son ”“ that is the divine knowing; and in that knowing, there proceeds God’s love, God’s will, the divine Spirit. The Word begotten, the Spirit proceeding; Father, Son, and Spirit: one spiritual life, one substance, in which these three are co-equal, co-eternal persons. God is not some abstract principle, physical or mathematical or whatever; God is not some impersonal force in the universe. The actuality of God, being, knowing, and loving, Father, Son, and Spirit, is the actuality of life. He is the living God.” Since our end is to know and to love God, our salvation consists finally in our worship ”“ by knowing and loving ”“ the living God. So the doctrine of the Trinity is not some arcane obscurity, but the truth which shapes the spiritual life of Christians, as they turn to God and grow into his likeness in Christ. To a limited degree we may know God through God’s knowing of himself; we may love God through God’s delight in his own infinite goodness; our knowing and loving God is a participation in the life of God himself. Not to think the Trinity, therefore, not to believe and profess this doctrine, is to shut oneself out from salvation.

—The Rev. Gavin Dunbar is rector of Saint John’s, Savannah, Georgia


Posted in The Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Theology