This is a revised version of a paper that I presented to the Southwestern Apologetics Group in October. Thanks to the students and faculty whose input was valuable in the revision process.
THE TRINITY AND APOLOGETICS: How the Trinity Defends Us
By Matt Sanders
The task of Christian apologetics is to provide a reasoned defense or a rational basis for the Christian faith. The ever-present danger and question is when bringing together reason and faith, which one drives the other. Is it as Anselm said, “Faith seeking understanding” or must our doctrine make sense before we can believe it, much less defend it? Providing a reasoned defense means that presuppositions, evidence, and interpretive devices (which can be a kind of presupposition) all come in to play. In any argument this is challenging because a perfectly logical argument can still be wrong if it is using insufficient or incorrect data. It can also be logical, but wrong, if it is based on presuppositions that cause it to devalue or reject evidence. An apologetic for the Trinity is even more difficult, because Trinitarian theology is based on certain presuppositions regarding the authority of the Bible and its proper interpretation, appears to be illogical, and is based in part on scarce experiential evidence.
The Christian God is Trinity, and it would seem that one of the major efforts would be to provide such a defense or basis for this central and key doctrine. Trinitarians believe that there is one God, that the Bible is the divine revelation, and that there is one correct interpretation. But if the opponent or the audience does not accept the authority of our sources of evidence, our arguments will be little more than dogmatic statements that to most people seem contrary to logic. How can God be three and one at the same time? Even if an explanation is given (e.g., one substance expressed in three persons), without an authoritative source that reveals this it seems like an unnecessary complication that runs contrary to what appear to be the equally or even more logical understandings of strict monotheism, polytheism, or atheism.
For example, the understanding of God as Trinity is found in how He has revealed Himself:
-the person and atoning work of Christ
-the new life lived out by the Spirit in the community of faith
If someone does not accept these revelations, it is difficult to use them as proof to this person. For example, if the Bible is not viewed as authoritative, it would be akin to using “Star Wars” to prove that there is a force in the universe that has a good side and a dark side. If one accepts “Star Wars” as truth, it could provide the basis for believing in the force. However, even if you could show some evidence of a Jedi mind trick, skeptics who reject the divine inspiration of George Lucas’ hexology would still not necessarily accept this as evidence of the force.
Even if someone accepts that the Bible is authoritative but has an incomplete view of the atonement, you may convince them that the Bible reveals God as Trinity, but they would only be able to admire it or worship it as a great mystery or misuse it. If we return to the “Star Wars” example, let us say that the story is true and people believe it but do not really understand it. They would be in awe of the force or they might try to use it for themselves, but they would be doing so without context and understanding. The same would be true for someone who might have a complete understanding of the atonement, but an incomplete experience.
This would seem to indicate that the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be defended. What then can we do? When two out of three ways have been shut, we must move to the third, no matter the risks or misgivings. Immanuel Kant summarized not only Enlightenment thinking, but much of the church’s thought about the Trinity throughout most of the church’s history when he wrote that the “doctrine of the Trinity provides nothing, absolutely nothing, of practical value.” At most, the doctrine of the Trinity has been a glorious mystery clearly taught in Scripture that should be rightfully adored. It is a mantelpiece doctrine, a test of orthodoxy, an icon of the church. The doctrine of the Trinity is treated almost like the embarrassing uncle who comes to every family get-together. “Oh don’t worry about Uncle Joe. He’s odd, but harmless.”
We all understand that right theology is pointless if it does not lead to right living. We all seem to understand the essential relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, except when it comes to the Trinity. Why is that even when the Bible clearly connects who God is with who we are as those made in the image of the Triune God? There are likely numerous factors, some legitimate and others not, that have drawn our attention from contemplating how the orthodoxy of the Trinity should be lived out. We will look at only one: The demands are too high and the implications of failure are too devastating.
In John 17:21, Jesus makes the connection between his relationship to the Father and our relationship to one another. His prayer is that his followers would share the same oneness that the Father and the Son share, and he prays this on a church that he knew would include people who at that time hated each other because of ethnic, gender, and socio-economic differences. Much of the New Testament details what this intimate relationship should be. Understand that whenever the Bible describes how Christians should treat one another, these descriptions are connected to who God is as Trinity. We are not just called to love, but to Trinitarian love by which we share without selfishness and cooperate without competition. We do all for the glory of God and the betterment of the community of faith and ultimately the betterment of the world. And as great as this might seem, the demands are also great. It requires us to stand against an inner and outer culture that is dominated by selfishness, materialism, individuality, and competition. We have so little time and so few resources to really live in community the way that the Bible teaches, and we admire but dismiss those who preach it and dare to live it.
The third way is not shut. But it is the most difficult. The question of the theodicy is often called the Achilles’ heel of classical theism. The scarcity of evidence of Trinitarian living is the Achilles’ heel of Trinitarianism. Any religion can produce a good individual. To use the argument that Christianity makes a person better then is easily countered. But only Christianity can produce Trinitarian communities and bring a positive Trinitarian force into the world. Our non-Trinitarian opponents already have the greatest argument against what we believe if they only knew. They only need ask: Where is this Trinity? Where are these communities? The scarcity of experiential evidence of churches even attempting to be Trinitarian gives the opponents of Trinitarianism much support for their positions. If we walk this path, and it seems that we must, we must be aware that it is not the easy path and at first it will be lonely.
So how can we walk this necessary path? The answer lies in allowing the Trinity to defend us. In some sense, we have more to lose in any encounter with opponents of Christianity than they do. If one Christian even appears to lose his or her temper in a confrontation with an angry mob of opponents, the Christians are the ones representing God and his kingdom. They are the one who failed to live up to what they believe. We must then engage in apologetics in the Spirit of the one whom we are representing, the God who is Trinity. The Trinity is God and we are made in the image of the Trinity. If we are believers in Christ and we have been made new so that we have the indwelling Spirit (God) transforming us to become more like Christ (God) in fellowship with the Father (God), then all we do should be Trinitarian, including apologetics.
Here are some steps in that direction.
1. Know the doctrine of the Trinity. It should be a lifelong process. This is not so that we can prove the Trinity through argumentation alone. But many non-Trinitarians will at least want to know that you understand what you believe.
2. Understand God’s Trinitarian vision for his kingdom and be able to articulate it.
3. Allow our knowledge and understanding of the Trinity to affect our lives, relationships, and churches.
4. Connect our apologetic activity to the church. Drink deeply from those who have come before us and those who stand with us now. It should not be the lone Christian standing against the culture. As we learn, we should teach the community of faith and as a community we should live in the life of the Trinity.
The truthfulness and superiority of the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be proved through argument alone. It must be demonstrated in life. The doctrine of the Trinity is its own defense, but only when this doctrine is evident in the life of the church. Trinitarian apologetics is then not a defense of the Trinity per se, but apologetics done in a Trinitarian way.
If an apologetic in the more traditional sense is required, the best way forward is to present God’s Trinitarian design for humanity, a design that brings together in divine love those divided by sin, hatred, jealousy, greed, pride, and the dominating desire to survive. God’s design, when properly presented, is so wondrous that even those who do not believe it is true will wish that it were. An apologetic also needs to make clear that there is no other way to achieve these ends unless it is the way of the Trinity, which is the way of the cross.
When engaging in apologetics, our purpose must be as it should be in all of life, which is to bring glory to God. God is most glorified when his presence is manifest. Our purpose then should be to reveal the God who is Trinity in all we say or do. Our purpose cannot be to make an opponent see God for that is the work of the Spirit. But that should be our desire, that they see and come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ so that they might know and reflect the God who is Trinity. Our purpose cannot be about winning an argument, unless by winning an argument one might win a brother or sister. The objective is to reveal the Trinity, even when the Trinity is not the topic being discussed. We must keep in mind that the Trinity is God, therefore all theology is Trinitarian. Context is everything. The Trinity is the context.
If we understand the doctrine of the Trinity and how this doctrine relates to our lives and if we communicate in the Spirit of the Trinity, then the Trinity defends us. The Trinity keeps us from being justifiably accused by the world of being a hypocrite. The Trinity prevents us from becoming a stumbling block to the lost and a hindrance to the advancement of the kingdom. The Trinity prevents us from having to appear before the thrice holy God to account for why we “defended” God in an unworthy way. Know the Trinity and live the Trinity. When we do and our opponents ask, “Where is this Trinity?” We can say, “There. And there. And there. And here.”
Wherefore, since we desire to understand the eternity, and equality, and unity of the Trinity, as much as is permitted us, but ought to believe before we understand; and since we must watch carefully, that our faith be not feigned; since we must have the fruition of the same Trinity, that we may live blessedly; but if we have believed anything false of it, our hope would be worthless, and our charity not pure: how then can we love, by believing, that Trinity which we do not know?
 Leonardo Boff quoting from Kant’s Der Streit der Fakultaten (Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, trans. Paul Burns, [Maryknoll, N. Y.: Orbis Books, 1997], 19).
Augustine, On the Trinity, 8.5.8. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953) and Second Series, ed. Schaff and Henry Wace, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952-57), electronic versions Oak Harbor: Logos Research System, 1997.