One of the big questions about the Trinity is about how much it is possible for us to even understand it. Isn’t it more reverent to say there are things about God we just can’t understand?
Well, if we are to say we love and believe in God, we can’t go around saying that we don’t know the most basic things about him. Saying you love God would be like saying you love gdghdfhgdfhfdg – the word “God” would be meaningless. And there are few facts more basic about anyone than how many there are – if someone said they loved John (i.e. my name), but by John they meant five people, they wouldn’t love me. So we must be able to understand something of the Trinity.
On the other hand, if there’s one thing that we can safely say about God, it is that He is bigger than our comprehension. And the Trinity is about God – and a particularly hard thing about God to get our heads around. The Trinity therefore cannot be understood.
So we must be able to understand God – but we also can’t understand God. What can we say about this?
Well, people who study quantum physics have a similar problem. They are dealing with ideas that are, like God, like the Trinity, beyond our experience. Things that work in a very different way to the way we naturally think.
To get around this problem, they use different “models” to conceptualise the ideas. In other words, they have pictures in their heads that help them imagine what is going on. So, for example, if they’re talking about the different parts of an atom, they think of it in terms of different balls moving around. They then modify this image in their head according to what the equations say.
And it’s similar with God. We can’t fully understand everything about God. But the Bible gives us images that can help us grasp part of the truth. We can then use and modify these images to get a clearer idea. That doesn’t mean we will ever have a full understanding – but we will be able to say something that isn’t just meaningless verbage.
The theologian J.I. Packer has developed this thought in the first half of his magnificent The Logic of Penal Substitution, writing:
All theological models, like the non-descriptive models of the physical sciences, have an analogical character; they are, we might say, analogies with a purpose, thought-patterns which function in a particular way, teaching us to focus one area of reality (relationships with God) by conceiving of it in terms of another, better known area of reality (relationships with each other). Thus they actually inform us about our relationship with God and through the Holy Spirit enable us to unify, clarify and intensify our experience in that relationship.
He goes on to point out that models are not universally good; you can have bad models. The function of theology is to develop the most biblical possible models.
Their characteristic theological method, whether practised clumsily or skilfully, consistently or inconsistently, has been [for theologians] to take biblical models as their God-given starting-point, to base their belief-system on what biblical writers use these models to say, and to let these models operate as ‘controls’, both suggesting and delimiting what further, secondary models may be developed in order to explicate these which are primary.
In the next couple of posts, we’ll look at the two main models that theologians have use to talk about the Trinity.