“Isn’t God awesome? I mean, God is three and one!” Imagine, if you can, hearing someone say that for the first time. Wouldn’t it strike you as odd? It isn’t immediately clear why that is awesome. In truth, the person hearing it for the first time probably isn’t very impressed, because they’re not at all sure why it matters and less sure of how it works. The person might be tempted to ask “How is it so?”
Don’t answer that question. Not yet.
I’d like to suggest that nothing is more unhelpful in introducing the Trinity than starting with the question of how. I’ve watched many eyes gloss over as an eager teacher (usually me) try to be the first to clearly and concisely explain how three are one. Those wading into this strange doctrine need a chance to explore the why of the Trinity before ruminating on the question of how.
Think of it this way. For all of my childhood, my dad was a diesel mechanic. He was a great mechanic and loved to share about what he was working on. But he always started his explanation as if I’d been there with him all along, knew the parts he was working with, and had some clue of why any of it mattered. In part, he was swimming upstream because I was an uninterested son. Shame on me. At the same time, I struggled to understand my dad’s explanation because he hadn’t sparked my interest by explaining, “This is why the timing belt is so important.” He shared the how without explaining the why. And without the why, the how felt cumbersome.
What is the why of the Trinity? Why does it matter that God exists as Three and One? It matters because it reveals God is love. A collect from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer guides our spirits and minds to dwell on this. “Almighty God, you have revealed to your Church your eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as one God in Trinity of Persons.” “Perfect love,” shared between the Three, is the core of the Divine Life. Love, as it has been made known through God, cannot self-contain. It needs a place to land. The Spirit of God cannot help but lavish love upon the Son; the Father cannot help but gush love upon the Spirit. And so on.
Of course, the scene of Jesus’ baptism is the clearest biblical image of how the Divine Life is characterized by shared love between the Three. The first words the Father speaks are, “I love you, son.” The Spirit descends into a sort of holy hand-holding as the Spirit travels with Jesus into the wilderness. The love here displayed is a caring, familial love between the Father, Son, and Spirit.
This intra-Trinitarian love is uniquely imagined in a piece of art found in a medieval Bavarian church (Fig. 1). Unlike more common paintings that try to show how the Father begets the Son and the Son begets the Spirit, this 14th-century painting shows the Father, Spirit, and Son in three persons, wrapped together in a shared cloak. The Father and the Son turn affectionately inward, laying hands upon the Spirit who is between them. Their figures are distinct above the waist but are conjoined below, seemingly indicating their united purpose. Though no image will perfectly represent the Triune One, this image helps us attend to love as the central characteristic of Divine Life.
Biblical writers do not discuss intra-Trinitarian love with the same frequency as they do the outward love of the Trinity. The first chapter of Scripture reveals a Triune God who works together to create a world and creatures with whom they might fellowship. “The act of creation,” suggests Stanley Grenz, “is the outflowing of the eternal love relationship within the Triune God” (Theology for the Community of God, p. 101). The words of John tell of a God whose love extends out to us that we may be welcomed into their own Divine Love. “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17:20-21). There is a deeply embedded dynamic of relational love at the heart of the Trinity that beckons us into the life of Triune Love. “I have given them the glory that you gave me,” Jesus continues, “that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity” (John 17:22-23). This is complemented throughout the biblical witness, from God walking with humanity in the garden in Genesis to God bringing new heavens and new earth to us in Revelation. The One’s love moves outward to us, drawing us into the love of the Three.
This outward-moving love is interestingly depicted in a well-known work painted by Andrei Rublev (Fig. 2). In this image, God is clearly in familial relation within the Trinitarian Persons. They gather around a table, with humble postures and eyes upon one another. One of the figures gently points to the meal on the table. As Sarah Coakley comments, this unassuming gesture reveals “that the eucharistic elements are intended as a means of such incorporation into this divine circle of gentle movement and mutual submission” (God, Sexuality, and the Self, p. 255). While egg metaphors and interlocking symbols are helpful to some degree, an image like this gets to the heart of why the Trinity is worth reflecting upon, why it matters that God is Three and God is One.
The Trinity is the foundation upon which it makes sense to say that “God is love.” We confess that the most basic characteristic of God’s existence is three persons who are so unrestrainedly in love that they cannot help but love that which they’ve made. Arguments could be made to suggest there are ways a singular god is love; likewise, we could make a way to suggest that many gods who are not united into one unbreakable union could be love. But with the Triune God of Christian faith, we need say no more than God is Three, but these Three are One in perfect love. God being Triune puts love at the center of God’s identity.
As it turns out, working with the question of why the Trinity is significant provides a rather simple response to the question how the Three are One. Justo Gonzalez writes that “there is a difference between oneness and aloneness that our highly individualistic society needs to rediscover and to ponder. God is one, but God is never alone. On the contrary, God is one in an eternal community of love” (The Apostle’s Creed for Today, p. 29). But do not trouble someone just beginning to wonder about the Trinity with this. Instead, do well helping them grasp why God being Triune matters. Perhaps they will be moved to worship God rather than only scratching their head.