As a young man, I was an aggressive atheist.
In fact, when I read the writings of Richard Dawkins, I get all nostalgic. You see, I used to be like that as well! I regarded religious people as deluded, believing all sorts of ridiculous nonsense. If I had been asked to single out what I regarded as the most absurd aspect of Christian belief, I would have pointed to the doctrine of the Trinity. How can God be three and one at the same time? It was irrational gibberish.
After discovering Christianity while I was a student at Oxford University, I began to explore the landscape of faith. It was an exciting and rewarding process. I found that I was able to make sense of a lot of basic Christian ideas quite quickly. But the doctrine of the Trinity still seemed nonsensical. That’s my reason for wanting to explain why this doctrine is so important and how we can make sense of it.
Let’s begin by asking what theology tries to do. One of the best answers is that it aims to weave together the threads of Scripture. It’s about trying to tell the full story so that we do justice to the wonder and glory of God. The Christian faith is like a lens that helps us bring things into focus, or a light that lights up the landscape of life so that we can see it more clearly. C. S. Lewis made this point brilliantly when he said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
So how do we do justice to God? God is so great that our little minds just can’t fit Him in! When we’re confronted with something too big for us to fully understand, our natural instinct is to scale it down. There’s nothing wrong with that—unless, of course, we think that our reduced version of reality is the way things really are. In the end, our minds just aren’t big enough to cope with God. He simply overwhelms our mental capacities.
Sometimes, in our attempt to master something complicated, we make it simple. Yet you can’t make something complicated simple. What you’re really doing is leaving out the complicated bits, or forcing something complex into a little box, and throwing away the bits that don’t fit. Simplification is always about reduction. And sometimes it’s about distortion as well.
That’s true in our thinking about God. You can’t fit God into a neat little slogan. It’s like trying to capture smoke in your hands or the fragrance of a summer meadow in a jar. God just can’t be mastered. He is supremely resistant to our attempts to reduce reality to our level. When Paul declares that the peace of God “surpasses all comprehension” (Phil. 4:7), he is not suggesting it is irrational. Rather, he is pointing out the inability of the human mind to cope with such things.
Back in the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo—one of Christianity’s early theologians—wrote about this problem. Taking a break from writing his major work On the Trinity, he went for a stroll along a beautiful beach nearby. As he walked, he came across a young boy behaving rather strangely. Time after time, the child went to the edge of the shoreline, filled a shell with seawater, and then emptied it into a hole he had dug in the sand.
Augustine watched for some time, mystified. Eventually, he decided to ask what was going on. Pointing to the Mediterranean Sea, the boy said, “I am going to empty the ocean into this hole in the sand.” According to the legend, Augustine smiled and said, “You can’t do that—you’ll never fit the ocean into that tiny hole you’ve dug.” The boy replied: “And you’re wasting your time writing a book about God. You’ll never fit God into a book.”
It’s a good point! The doctrine of the Trinity stops us from reducing God to the level of what we can cope with. It aims to tell the truth about God, no matter how difficult we find it to be. God is our Creator. He redeems us in Christ. And He is present with us right now in the Holy Spirit. The Trinity makes us tell the full story of God and stops us from diminishing His grandeur. After all, that’s one of the reasons why Christians worship. We realize that God is so great and glorious that we want to praise Him.
by Alister McGrath