The Trinity as a Paradigm for Spiritual Transformation
Posted by on January 1, 2008Topic: BlogTopic: FaithTopic: Just Thinking MagazineTopic: MeaningTopic: Theology and PhilosophyTopic: WorldviewTopic: Worship and Spirituality
Topic: Attributes of God
Excerpted from one of L.T. Jeyachandran’s chapter in Ravi Zacharias, ed., Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007). The following is from the opening chapter in Part Two: Internalizing the Questions and Answers. Copyright © 2007 by Ravi Zacharias. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. Click here to order Beyond Opinion.
It is a sad fact that the doctrine of the Trinity has been believed in but rarely preached on in our churches. Living these last few years in Singapore, sandwiched between the two Islamic countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, I have half-humorously, half-seriously commented to Christian leaders, “We all believe in the Trinity, but we pray to the Trinity that nobody would question us about the Trinity!” The doctrine is felt to be irrelevant if not an outright and unnecessary complication imposed on the simple belief in the One God.
God is the basis of all reality. Thus, what he is like in his being and through his activity should provide an adequate explanation for all that we see and experience. The aspects of God that have the most fundamental applications for apologetics are his being (identity), character, and knowledge. In the amazing providence of God, he stands revealed not in platitudes and abstract universals, but in a breathtaking narrative recorded for us in the Bible that outlines God’s encounter with his people in creation and redemption history. Here we will reflect upon the trinitarian revelation of God in just one of three aspects listed above, and that is his character, which is holiness.
In the course of a Bible study for college students in Delhi, a Hindu girl asked me what I consider to be a brilliant question: “How can you Christians say God is good? Good is the opposite of evil; evil is not eternal; therefore, good cannot be eternal as well.” Without going into her definition of evil as the opposite of good, it should be conceded that the question is a legitimate one. The Christian insists that God exists without reference to evil and rejects the dualism of positing good and evil as equal and opposite. But how can the Christian sustain this position philosophically and existentially?
If I were awakened suddenly in the middle of the night and asked this question, “What is holiness?” my instinctive answer would be “Absence of sin!” Although that may be enough of an answer for our understanding of holiness because of our fallenness and familiarity with sin, it would be inadequate as a definition of the holiness of God. He is holy without any reference to sin. How do we define that kind of holiness? We cannot define good with reference to evil because good is the original of which evil is the counterfeit—a problem parallel to defining the infinite in terms of the finite. Evil is an aberration. We need to look for a positive definition of good without reference to evil.
Very significantly, the answer lies in the trinitarian being of God. Love is the epitome of all virtue and the highest expression of holiness. And God should not have to depend upon his creation to actualize his capacity to love, for that would make creation as important as the Creator because the Creator would be incomplete without his creation. But the Bible introduces love as an interpersonal quality requiring a subject-object relationship that is available in the Trinity because of the Father-Son relationship through the Holy Spirit. The trinitarian God is complete in his love relationship without reference to his creation. The Father loves the Son before the creation of the world (John 17:24). The infinite personal medium through whom this love is communicated is the Holy Spirit, and he is the one who pours the love of God in our hearts as well (Romans 5:5). The final answer that I could give to this college girl was to appeal to the Trinity, where good always existed without any reference to, outside of, and before evil.
The Application to Apologetics
What is the application to apologetics of this amazing truth? At the philosophical level, this is the fundamental basis of all studies of values, what is called axiology. This branch of philosophy deals with the study, among others, of aesthetics and ethics. The holiness of this trinitarian God is the basis on which all ethics are grounded. Trinitarian theology becomes the proper starting point of all theorizing about ethics. At another level, the study of beauty involves unity in diversity such as a painting or a symphony. If both the diversity of the elements and the unity of the final product do not have real significance, these could reduce to meaningless pursuits. That significance is provided only because in our Creator God, diversity (the distinction between the Persons of the Godhead) and unity (the Oneness of the Godhead) are both meaningful and significant. I do not mean that one must hold an eternal perspective in order to meaningfully engage in the arts; rather, to note that beauty and harmony are best explained only when ultimate reality, God, is the ground of both unity and diversity.
A trinitarian understanding of holiness avoids two errors. On the one hand, the classical moral argument in favor of God talks about him in rather flat, one-dimensional terms as a much-needed frame of reference for any system of moral values. However, the plea that God is the infinite, moral standard (as he is often referred to in these arguments) does not tell us who this God is. On the other, we have no alternative except to posit a dualism where good and evil are seen as equal and opposite. But it is quite obvious, even from a philosophical point of view, that good cannot simply be stated as the absence of evil. In fact, the opposite is the case. But then, we need to establish how good can be defined without any reference to evil. Indeed, this is the substance of the question posed by the college student quoted earlier.
The Ten Commandments that God gave to his people (Exodus 20:1–17) sum up God’s requirement in terms of relationships—with him and with one another. The Old Testament also sums up the commandments as love relationships with God (Deuteronomy 6:4–5) and among his people (Leviticus 19:18). In other words, holiness by God’s own definition (Leviticus 19:2) is seen in the relational commandments that comprise the rest of that chapter. Holiness is therefore not the stand-alone ascetic quality that is the hallmark of some Eastern religions but a community of people in right relationship to one another.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the psalmist tells us that God is to be worshiped in “the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29:2 KJV). As we have seen, both these qualities require harmony and relatedness. In one word, our reflection on the enthralling being of the Triune God should result in true worship. This is simply the response of who we are to who He is. Unfortunately, in our present Christian climate, what we do in our worship services seems to take precedence over everything else! Yet our thinking, feeling, and willing capabilities actually flow out of the fact that we are—our being.
We are born to our parents and we grow in our understanding of ourselves as we learn to relate to parents, siblings, and friends. Simply put, I can’t be me without someone else; you can’t be you without reference to someone else. What makes a person a person is her (or his) capability of interpersonal relationship. In fact, we derive our most fundamental sense of identity by relating to God and other human beings. Moreover, the identity that we seek from impersonal entities such as achievement, fame, pleasure, and possessions—the hallmarks of today’s consumerist, shopping-mall existence—can be extremely inadequate and frustrating. To add to the confusion, we are deep into the use of gadgets and cyber-technology that is accelerating this tendency to depersonalization. Information technology seems to be providing the basis for our philosophy of life; everything including people can be digitalized and miniaturized and reduced to megabytes on a microchip.
It is probably not very surprising that in this rather lonely environment, the Christian pursuit of worship has been made a purely individualistic endeavor. Christian disciplines do not appear to be any different from the aspiration of Eastern religions except that Christian words have been inserted. Are we guilty of baptizing alien methods of spirituality into the Christian church by reducing the totality of Christian worship to nothing more than Christian forms of the lonely soul’s Nirvana?
The lack of Trinitarian thinking and preaching has exacerbated the prevailing individualism of our culture and has brought it right into our Christian life and practice. If we do not think of God as a relational being in himself, we cannot appreciate the point that we are made to reflect his image in our relationships with one another. More often, we only consider God as relational insofar as what we can get out of him in a utilitarian sense. We need to depend on one another to help us comprehend the majesty and love of God and respond in true worship as a community (Ephesians 3:14-21).
Many of the psalms are in the plural and not necessarily sung to God but to one another (see, for instance, Psalms 95-100; 122-126; 132-144). The idea of worship today is that every individual Christian is supposed to ride on an emotional high all the time. What is not emphasized is that it is simply not possible—happily so, in my opinion, because that kind of a sustained emotional state is recipe for a mental breakdown! On the other hand, the Scriptures teach us that when we are discouraged, we encourage one another to lift up our feeble hands in adoration to God. In so doing, we begin to reflect our dependence on one another and thereby reflect the being of God in our corporate worship.
Our response to the holiness of God is to reflect his character in our lives—in one phrase, the pursuit of holiness. In our endeavor in this direction, however, we need to be careful to note that what we have come to call personal holiness—what is inward—is only a potential that has to be constantly actualized in inter-personal relationships. The time I spend with God must enable me to relate to a world of people and things in the right way. In fact, I can be holy when I am by myself; it is when I come out of my room and meet the world of people and things that I run into serious problems! I am afraid that the emphasis on holiness that we often talk about is my preoccupation with my hands being clean and my conscience clear for their own sake, and that happens to be a pretty selfish motive. A selfish motive to be selfless, indeed! It would be almost as if Moses, on coming down from Mount Sinai, began to enjoy his shining face in a mirror!
Holiness, in the final analysis, is therefore otherward and thus unselfconscious. I have been fascinated by the trinitarian example from John 5:19-27; 16:13, 14. The Father entrusts all things to the Son: his authority, his power over life and judgment. But the Son will not do anything by himself; he will only do what he sees the Father doing. The Spirit will not speak of himself nor seek his own glory. He will bring glory to Jesus by taking what belongs to Jesus and showing them to us.
Three self-giving, self-effacing persons constitute the amazing God whom we worship! It is this aspect of God’s character that we seek to reflect in our life and walk as the church of Jesus Christ.
L.T. Jeyachandran is Executive Director of RZIM (Asia-Pacific) Ltd. in Singapore