The Trinity: Imagination, Reality, and Power

Jay Smith, YTI President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

February 2016 Inscribed

NOTE: The following is an adaptation of a lecture delivered in Boise and Bellingham in October 2015.

The doctrine of the Trinity lies at the heart of the Christian faith, yet relatively few understand its meaning or importance.

Those who follow Christ have pondered the nature of God since roughly A.D. 33. The person of Jesus immediately caused His followers—and eventually the entire world—to ask if Jesus “was God”?

It took the ancient church almost 250 years to conclude that Jesus was, in fact, the “Son of God” and, as such, was divine. It took roughly another 100 years for the early church to conclude that the Holy Spirit, coming from God as well, was divine. Now, we believe in one God who exists in three persons—one “God-ness” indwelling in three persons.

That is the uniqueness of Christianity, and each of the three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has a task in the self-revealing of God. Additionally, every human being is constituted in such a fashion that an aspect of our mental processes is designed to uniquely connect with the Trinity.

Imagination and the Trinity

Imagination is the function of the human mind that synthesizes all information and coordinates all other mental functions (reason, will, memory) in order to create a reality in which the human being can live. Artists deal almost exclusively in the creation of imaginative realities­—paintings, drawings, sculptures, gardens, scientific formulas, novels, and symphonies. When the body is in sleep mode, the imagination takes our most powerful experiences and transforms them into dreams. All of these mental activities are a witness to the power of imagination.

The most powerful task of the imagination, however, is to believe. As the organ of faith, imagination is the place where the Holy Spirit connects the human being to the story, power, and truth of God. The imagination allows us to “believe without seeing”, to “live the resurrection”, and to “envision and to mourn the crucifixion of Jesus.” However, for the imagination to apprehend God, God must be available to us as an historical reality, for the imagination is limited to the apprehension of concrete, historical forms. The Christian affirmation that Jesus is the historical and personal revealing of God satisfies that requirement. In Jesus, God is personal and historical, yet retains the elements of mystery that the imagination demands for belief. God comes in person, so we can know God, personally; no other religious expression makes that claim.

When the imagination is not allowed to act as the unique instrument that apprehends grace and shapes it into faith in God, then it can twist and turn your life into a carnival of errors. God, as understood through the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, is the unique way in which men and women can know God…but we have to allow God to possess our imaginations.

Reality and the Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity is not simply an esoteric and academic teaching about the nature of God, but rather it is a teaching that influences every part of our lives in Christ. Why? Because the doctrine of the Trinity is not as much a definition of the being of God as it is a description of how we experience God. What a biblical investigation of the doctrine of the Trinity demonstrates is how God appeals and relates to us. It still describes the inner relationships between the divine persons, and it demonstrates how God relates to the cosmos at large. Yet, if we miss the personal relationship aspect, then we miss the point.

We have already discussed one aspect of how the Trinity is really real: the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is a historically credible figure that lends credence to the gospel message. The second “how” is how we experience the truth of the presence of God and the reality of the Gospel in the Holy Spirit. What the gospels and the book of Acts tell us is that Jesus would not leave us alone, but He would send His Spirit to “teach us all things” and “convict the world of sin.” From Paul’s writings, we learn the Holy Spirit would imbue us with a new outlook on life and a new set of virtues, endow us with “gifts” in order for the church to effectively function as “the body of Christ,” and flood every believer with the experience of God’s love. The “how” of experiencing the Trinity lies in our personal experience of God’s overwhelming love in the Holy Spirit. Every human being is a person that measures life in experiences, and the advent of Christ in a person’s life is a dynamic spiritual experience.

The final “how” is the perceptible presence of God in creation itself. We have the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Our world is one of incredible—even unimaginable—experiences, and we, obviously, have the capabilities to process such experiences. Evolutionary theory posits that human beings and the rest of creation are connected at a cellular level. There is merit to this thought at a biblical and theological level as well. The Father created the world through His word and by His Spirit. The planet and the people belong to each other and to God, through the will of the Father. Because the Father has willed this relationship, divine “residue” coats the mountains, rivers, snowflakes, thunderstorms, waving wheat, the smell of lilacs, the golden sunrise, and the tangerine sunset. God is actual (really real!) because of the activity of the Trinity. The Father has willed our relationship in and with creation. The Son has made God known in history, and we have experienced God through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our own existence.

The Trinity and Power

The narrative of scripture repeatedly details God working in and through people—not just kings or prophets, but ordinary, run of the mill followers of God. Jesus says in John 14, “If you love me and obey my instructions, I will ask the Father and He will give you the Holy Spirit.” On top of that, the Spirit isn’t just a gift, but  has a series of functions, the first being to indwell you and me, the Body of Christ, with the dynamic power of God. With that power comes grace, conviction, wisdom, knowledge, and some specific ministry gifts, as well as faith, hope, and, most importantly, love. Each and every believer in Jesus is filled with this dynamic power, since the third person of the Trinity now dwells within him or her. The Spirit dynamically links believers together with the will of the Father, love of the Son, and the power of the Spirit. The Spirit desires to work the power of the Father through us, members of the body of Christ, just as He worked through Jesus, the Son. As Christians, we are to live in the Spirit of Christ, ushering in the Kingdom of God just as Jesus did. Jesus says to us, just as Jesus said to the original disciples: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another,” (John 13:35) and “Go into all the world and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19-20). The Holy Spirit is God living within us in order to share God’s love, accomplish God’s will, and reflect the kingdom on earth. God accomplishes whatsoever He wishes through us and uses whatever power required insuring that His will is done.

The understanding of God as Trinity is unique to Christianity, but it is also imperative for our world. It is how all human beings can know God…if they believe. The Trinity speaks to our imaginations first, and only secondarily to our reason. Because of that truth, God connects to our inmost being in a relentless, utterly dynamic, and ultimately loving fashion. It is that truth that shapes our reality. We comprehend the Trinity speaking to us because of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Three are One, but speak to us as Three, leading us to the One. God is real. The key is Jesus. He connects us to the Father and to the Spirit. In doing so, He leads us “into all righteousness.” Yet it is the Spirit that constantly points us back to Jesus as the exemplar of justice, righteousness, peace, and love. Together, they bring us to the love of the Father, the source of all life. Amen.

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