Why we should study the Metaphysics of the Trinity

This month’s guest post comes to you from Isaiah Lin. Like many of us who write on this blog, his roots are in Santa Barbara. Currently, Isaiah is studying at Talbot. Isaiah’s family and my family have known each other for many years through serving together at the Chinese Evangelical Free Church of Santa Barbara. Over the years our families have gone on many trips together, but the sweetest memories are those spent serving together. This past weekend, Isaiah and I had the opportunity to serve at CCCTO‘s summer retreat, where Dien To spoke. You can catch Dien’s 5 part series called “What’s the Big Picture?” on the CCCTO website.  

Augustine (De Trinitate)

Introduction:

With the following post, I want to raise a concern that weighs heavily on my heart. My concern can be phrased as the following question: Why is it the case that most professing Christians know close to nothing about the triune nature of the God they say they worship? I want to raise and briefly address three questions in this post. First, what happens if we as the Church fail to study and teach the doctrine of the Trinity? Second, why should we bother studying the Trinity at all? And third, by what means can we begin a pursuit of the doctrine of the Trinity? This post will be far too brief than it deserves, but I hope it will nonetheless be sobering, motivating, and thought provoking.

Question 1: What happens if the Church fails to teach the doctrine of the Trinity?

In addressing this first question, let us broaden our scope and contemplate this quote:

“The growth of ignorance in the Church is the logical and inevitable result of the false notion that Christianity is a life and not also a doctrine; if Christianity is not a doctrine then of course teaching is not necessary to Christianity. But
whatever the causes for the growth of ignorance in the Church, the evil must be remedied… Christian education is the chief business of the hour for every earnest Christian man. Christianity cannot subsist unless men know what Christianity is…” (Gresham Machen Christianity & Liberalism p. 176-177)

Now, whether you agree with Machen’s other works and systematic theology or not, he does put his finger on something quite relevant to our discussion today. What happens if the next generation of professing Christians believes that Jesus was fully man but not fully God? What would you say about them? With reverence, I dare say that whatever this hypothetical generation is, it is not a generation of Christians. The doctrine of Christianity is not the sort of thing that molds itself to whatever those who profess to be Christian at the time believe. I hope that this inspires some introspection on the part of those who would consider themselves Christian. Believing you are a Christian does not make you a Christian. Believing in the Gospel of Jesus Christ does. But this implies a certain understanding of what the Gospel of Jesus Christ actually is, not whatever you want it to be. I take it there are many people who believe they are Christian, but are not genuine members of the Body because they have too far perverted the Gospel message. Scary? It should be. So it becomes clear that teaching an accurate account of Christian doctrine is of utmost importance. After all, Scripture tells us that teachers will be held to a higher standard (James 3:1). For clarity, I am not saying that unless we understand everything there is to know about Christian doctrine, we are not Christians. However, I am saying that what we know and teach about Christian doctrine matters.

So let us return to our first question. What happens if the Church stops teaching the doctrine of the Trinity? For one, Christians will begin to think that the Trinity is unimportant. Learning about effective evangelism and being a “good person” will be seen as a better use of time.

And isn’t this what we see in our churches? Clearly these other pursuits are good, but question why our churches emphasize certain doctrines over others. It’s worth thinking about. Another potential consequence, perhaps more devastating than the former, is the vulnerability it creates in the Body. If we do not teach our children something as fundamental as the triune nature of God, should it surprise us when they so easily get swept away by cults that make similar, yet heretical claims? It’s simple. If one does not know what God is like, then there is almost no way for that person to discern if someone else is wrong about what God is like. And as Machen writes, “…whatever the causes for the growth of ignorance in the Church, the evil must be remedied…”

Question 2: Why bother studying the doctrine of the Trinity?

As if the consequences of not studying the doctrine of the Trinity are not severe enough, is there a positive reason for why one should pursue Trinitarian studies? Clearly I think the answer is yes. I cannot begin to impress upon you the importance of pursuing knowledge of the Trinity. Whether we are aware of it or not, we now live in the wake of the anti-intellectual movement in Christian culture. Many have abandoned rational thought, believing that faith excludes reason, leaving devastating impacts on the teachings of Christ and Christian doctrine in general. Think back through all the sermons that you have heard, or Sunday school lessons you have taken. Do you ever remember learning about the Triune nature of God beyond the mere affirmation that he is Three in One? Further, it’s not only that Trinitarian studies have ceased in our churches, but it’s also often the case that the pursuit itself is actively condemned. People often say, “That’s too philosophical,” or, “we will never fully understand God in this lifetime, so what’s the point?” It may be true that we will not come to a complete knowledge of God in this lifetime, in fact that’s quite likely, but neither will we fully understand all of what scripture has to teach. But this doesn’t stop us from the pursuit of learning about God through scripture. The very fathers who established orthodoxy understood this clearly. Augustine, Richard of St. Victor, Aquinas, and countless others dedicated their lives to these intellectual pursuits ultimately contributing to establish the very orthodoxy that our evangelical faith is built upon.
The point is, the pursuit of knowing more about the Holy Trinity that we love is itself virtuous. Why study the metaphysics of the Trinity? When properly done, it can be worship in the purest of forms.

Question 3: How can we begin a pursuit of the doctrine of the Trinity?

Now, if you’re with me up to this point, you may be wondering how we can begin such a pursuit. I submit to you the following two ways are two incredibly vital means by which we ought to.

History:

Looking back at what scholars have discerned about Scripture is tremendously helpful in interpreting scripture. So it is also the case for Trinitarian theology. The early church had a lot to say about the Trinity. We need to ask ourselves questions like, why do we believe in a Trinity if the word ‘Trinity’ is not explicitly in the Holy Scriptures? Further, where did our Trinitarian doctrine come from? Simply put, the early church had to establish an orthodoxy to combat false teachings that were being presented. Essentially, these are the grounds for the establishment of the creeds. The creeds were a formal affirmation of doctrine put in place intended to combat unsound doctrine. Perhaps the best example of this is the heresy of Arianism. In the early church, Arius was teaching that the second and third persons of the Trinity were not eternal, but created by the Father. In the first council of Nicaea, Arius was deemed a heretic for this very doctrine. Following this, we can see these orthodox principles affirmed later on, the Athanasian Creed being one example. I mention these things because it’s obvious that studying the history of our Church can lead to a wealth of knowledge regarding accurate doctrine. When was the last time your church offered a class on historical theology?

Metaphysics:

First off, what the heck is metaphysics? Frankly, this is no easy question to answer. However for our purposes, we can settle on an ambiguous definition such as, metaphysics is the study of being. Now, this definition probably isn’t very illuminating, so for ease, let us look at some questions that would fall under this discipline. What is existence? Is it a property of a thing? What is a property? When we say that the grass is green, are we really saying that there is such a thing that is grass, and further, that this thing has the property of being green? What does it mean to be identical to something? What does it mean for two things to be related to one another? If you have tried to answer these types of questions about the nature of things, then you have undoubtedly attempted to engage in the enterprise of metaphysics. In this enterprise, we try to understand the way the world is. We try to understand all sorts of things like first causes, the human mind, possible worlds, and yes, the nature of GOD.

If we think for a moment about this, it really shouldn’t be all that shocking. Often times we wonder about the nature of God. “How is the Trinity possible?” we might ask. How is any god possible at all? Well, why might we have an intuition that He might be impossible? If we think this because of the natural sciences, such as physics and chemistry, we should pause for a moment and reflect. Physics and chemistry are in the game of describing aspects of the physical world. They use empirical methods to show patterns and probabilities in the physical domain. So ultimately, how much can those enterprises even say about the immaterial? Metaphysics, on the other hand, is not constrained to the domain of the physical realm. If there is an inconsistency in God, or one wants to argue that God is impossible, it must be demonstrable, at least in part, through metaphysical argumentation. After all, metaphysics is in the game of answering questions such as, what is a person? What is a substance? Both of these are critical in understanding the Holy Trinity.

So Metaphysics may seem a bit abstract at first, but hopefully, the more you study it, the more it becomes relevant, because the enterprise is not aimed at simply clarifying the terms used in the natural sciences, but to independently discern aspects of reality.

Final Thoughts:

It is clear that I have only touched on a miniscule portion of this topic and so much more can be said. This is an invitation for you to continue to pursue God in this way on your own. Make no mistake. The passion that many Christians have to live out their convictions is a good thing. The claim here is that sound doctrine needs to be the foundation for our actions. It ought not be merely a supplementary pursuit. That being said, hopefully what we have done here is a few things.

  1. I hope that you have begun to see the importance of the life of the Christian mind. Pursuing God with our minds is a calling for all Christians, not just those who want to pursue careers in theology or philosophy.
  2. I hope you have caught a glimpse of the vast amount of knowledge to be gained from historical theologians and the early church. I hope that you begin to see that learning about the development of orthodoxy, whether you adhere to every last bit of it or not, ought to play a role in the development of your theological positions.
  3. I hope you see that to become more resilient to cults who disguise themselves with the term “Christian,” we need to first understand what it is that we believe. Then, we need to encourage our brothers and sisters to maturity in the same way.

Lastly, I will remark that I am tremendously optimistic. I have seen an explosion in recent years in the number of people earnestly seeking after and glorifying God with their intellect. God will be faithful to his people.

So, why study the doctrine of the Trinity?
When properly done, it can be worship in the purest of forms.

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