Verses: Deut 6:4; Phil 2:6; Matt 28:19; John 14-16
Leading Question: Has any human being ever understood the Trinity?
The word “trinity” nowhere appears in Scripture. Early Adventists attacked the doctrine. Ellen White nowhere uses the term, but is given credit for moving Adventists towards its acceptance. In this lesson we will explore the relationship of the Trinity to daily living, history, and the Bible.
1. The Practical Question: What difference does understanding the trinity make in my life?
The 17th century English minister, Robert South (1634-1716), reminds us that we should take the doctrine of the trinity very seriously, but not too seriously: “Just as denying this fundamental Christian belief could cost you your soul, so trying too hard to understand it could cost you your wits.”
From a practical point of view, the Trinity simply tries to preserve three great truths:
- That God is always on the throne (Father)
- That God took human flesh to show us what God is like (Son)
- That God is everywhere present. (Holy Spirit)
In my own experience, the most profound truth of the Trinity doctrine is that God himself took human flesh and came to planet earth. A more complete story of my experience and my “discovery” is found in my book, Escape from the Flames: How Ellen White grew from fear to joy and helped me do it too (Pacific Press, 2005). But here is a shorter article that can help explain why the Trinity is such a precious doctrine to me:
“I Was 23 When I Saw the Light”
By Alden Thompson
(Cf. NPUC Gleaner, 18 September 1995)
It happened in my second year of Seminary at Andrews University. I was 23, a fourth generation Adventist with a theology degree from Walla Walla College. All my formal education had been in Adventist schools. Why hadn’t I seen the light?
I don’t know why. But here’s the story of the what and the how.
It started with a question that was dogging my Christian experience: If God loves me, why do I need a mediator? Sharpening the issue was that troubling line in The Great Controversy that we “are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator” (p. 425).
Tackling the question in a seminar, I discovered a two-part answer in John 14-17, the first part a thunderclap, the second a gentle rain.
I remember sharing the thunderclap with my friend Jon Dybdahl as we walked home from campus one day. “Guess what I discovered!” I exclaimed. “Jesus is God!” It was no surprise to him. He already had realized the truth of Jesus’ words, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (John 14:9). But with me, that message had just struck home. Though words like “Son of God” and “divine” were in my vocabulary, I hadn’t “known” that Jesus is God.
My excitement was heightened by the second part of the answer – the gentle rain – Jesus’ promise in John 16:26-27 that we would pray in His name but that He wouldnot pray to the Father for us.
And why not? Because the Father Himself loves us.
In short, seeing the Father through Jesus transforms the threat – standing in God’s presence without a mediator – into a promise.
Sin, of course, complicates the story. Like Peter, we sometimes beg the Lord to depart because of our sin (Luke 5:8). But desperate need also drives us, like Jacob, to grasp the Divine and not let go without a blessing (Genesis 32:26).
God knows all that. That’s why Jesus is our Mediator whenever and as long as we need Him. But someday we will meet God face to face. That’s a promise, not a threat.
The long-term results of my discovery fall under three headings:
- From fear to joy. Most important for me, the thunderclap truth transformed my view of God. If He took our flesh to live and die for us, then salvation was not a begrudging process in which a lesser being paid the price for unworthy rebels. In short, God is not reluctant. He actually wants me in His kingdom.That meant joyful service to a gracious God instead of strenuous efforts to please a reluctant One. God no longer demanded my obedience; He had won my heart. And all because Jesus is God.Then I discovered that my own pilgrimage from fear to joy was paralleled in Scripture by the contrast between Sinai and Golgotha: At Sinai, God came to kill: “Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death” (Exodus 19:12, NRSV). At Golgotha, the “author of life” (Acts 3:14, NRSV) came to die. This is not a contrast between law and grace, for both mountains were part of God’s gracious purpose. But the joy in the story comes first and foremost from Golgotha.
- Diversity. God used different methods and even different “truths” to point me towards Him at various points in my life. Seeing that diversity in myself helps me recognize the diversity of experiences in others.Perhaps the most challenging task facing the Spirit and the church is to match the right truths with the right people at the right time. It means the right mix of mercy and fear (Jude 22-23), or the choice between stick and gentle love (1 Corinthians 4:21). And all of us see only part of the picture in that respect. As Ellen White put it, “Often through unusual experiences, under special circumstances, He [God] gives to some Bible students views of truth that others do not grasp. It is possible for the most learned teacher to fall far short of teaching all that should be taught’ (Counsels to Parents and Teachers, 432-33).
- Patience. I’m sometimes embarrassed that it took me so long to see the light. But that long trek means I have good reason to be patient with those who see things in a different light. Indeed, my “light” is quite unlikely to be just right even yet. Many aspects of truth defy human explanation. Just ask any two Christians to explain the Trinity….But you don’t have to be bright or educated to know that Jesus died for you and is coming again. And if God grants you more “light,” rejoice, for it doesn’t have to mean a change in goal, just more joy along the way.
Ellen White once reminded health reform enthusiasts how important it is to recall our own struggles, “remembering the hole of the pit whence we were digged” (Testimonies 3:21, citing the words of Isaiah 51:1, KJV). Theologians can listen in:
“If we should allow the people as much time as we have required to come up to the present advanced state in reform, we would be very patient with them…. We should be very cautious not to advance too fast, lest we be obliged to retrace our steps. In reforms we would better come one step short of the mark than to go one step beyond it. And if there is error at all, let it be on the side next to the people” (Testimonies3:20-21).
And so I try to remember what happened to me when I was 23.
2. The Historical Questions: A) Why did it take nearly 300 years before Christians spelled out the doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea, in AD 325? B) Why did it take Adventists so long to accept the doctrine of the Trinity?
- The 300 years in early Christian history. In Jesus’ day, the Jewish people were expecting a human king in the line of David. He would be the “messiah,” (anointed one), to be sure, but the idea that this “messiah” would be God incarnate would have been nearly impossible for them to accept, least at first. It should not be surprising, therefore, that Christians needed hundreds of years to sort out the doctrine. The key elements are all there in the Gospels. But putting everything together was a long-term process. C. S. Lewis, highlights the challenge that Jesus’ life and death presents: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.” – A Grief Observed, IV.15
- The Struggle over the Trinity in Adventism. Though he mellowed some in later years, James White strongly opposed the Trinity, referring to it as “that old Trinitarian absurdity” (RH, Aug. 5, 1852). The SDA Encyclopedia (Article: “Christology”), replaces the word “absurdity” with “idea,” thus shielding Adventists today from the full force of his early feelings. Though Ellen White did not attack the Trinity as her husband did, her early writings reveal that she shared some of the non-trinitarian views of her husband. A paragraph from Part V of Thompson’s Sinai-Golgotha series (AR 1981.12.31) includes this commentary on the comparison between EGW’s earlier statements fromSpiritual Gifts (1858) and Spirit of Prophecy (1870) and Patriarchs and Prophets (1890):
The earlier accounts describe Satan’s animosity as the result of Christ’s exaltation (cf. Spiritual Gifts, Vol. I, p. 18; The Spirit of Prophecy, Vol. I, pp. 17, 18). But Patriarchs and Prophets reverses the cause-effect sequence, stating that it was only as a result of Lucifer’s claim to equality with Christ that a statement of Christ’s authority had become necessary. There had been “no change in the position or authority of Christ”; “this had been the same from the beginning.” –Page 38.
George Knight, in A Search for Identity (RH 2000), describes M. L. Andreasen’s stunned reaction at what Ellen White had written in Desire of Ages (1898). The key phrase declared that “in Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived” (DA 530). Andreasen actually traveled to Ellen White’s home in Healdsburg to see if she had written it. “‘That statement may not seem very revolutionary to you, but it was to us,’” he told an audience in 1948. “‘We could hardly believe it. . . . I was sure Sister White had never written ‘the passage.’” “But now I found it in her own handwriting just as it had been published” (MLA MS, Nov. 30, 1948). – Knight, Search, 116-17.
The church’s changing position on the Trinity is reflected in the successive editions of the Adventist Fundamental Beliefs. The first “unofficial” statement in 1872 is not Trinitarian; but the 1932 and 1980 statements, both official statements of the church, are fully Trinitarian:
Trinity and Godhead:
1872: #1 “That there is one God, a personal, spiritual being, the creator of all things, omnipotent, omniscient, and eternal, infinite in wisdom, holiness, justice, goodness, truth, and mercy; unchangeable, and everywhere present by his representative, the Holy Spirit. Ps. 139:7.
1931: #2 “That the Godhead, or Trinity, consists of the Eternal Father, a personal spiritual Being, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, infinite in wisdom and love; the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Eternal Father, through whom all things were created and through whom the salvation of the redeemed hosts will be accomplished; the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead, the great regenerating power in the work of redemption. Matt. 28:19.
1980: #2 “There is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a unity of three co-eternal Persons. God is immortal, all-powerful, all-knowing, above all, and ever present. He is infinite and beyond human comprehension, yet known through His self-revelation. He is forever worthy of worship, adoration, and service by the whole creation. (Deut. 6:4; 29:29; Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:4-6; 1 Pet. 1:2; 1 Tim. 1:17; Rev. 14:6, 7)
Cf. #3 “God the eternal Father is the Creator, Source, Sustainer, and Sovereign…”
Cf. #4 “God the eternal Son became incarnate in Jesus Christ…”
Cf. #5 “God the eternal Spirit…”
Statements on the Divinity of Christ:
1872: #2 “That there is one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Eternal Father, the one by whom God created all things, and by whom they do consist; that he took on him the nature of the seed of Abraham for the redemption of our fallen race; that he dwelt among men full of grace and truth, lived our example, died our sacrifice, was raised for our justification, ascended on high to be our only mediator in the sanctuary in Heaven, where, with his own blood he makes atonement for our sins; which atonement so far from being made on the cross, which was but the offering of the sacrifice, is the very last portion of his work as priest, according o the example of the Levitical priesthood, which foreshadowed and prefigured the ministry of our Lord in Heaven. See Lev. 16; Heb. 8:4, 5; 9:6, 7 &c.
1931: #3 “That Jesus Christ is very God, being of the same nature and essence as the Eternal Father. While retaining His divine nature He took upon Himself the nature of the human family, lived on the earth as a man, exemplified in His life as our Example the principles of righteousness, attested His relationships to God by many mighty miracles, died for our sins on the cross, was raised from the dead, and ascended to the Father, where He ever lives to make intercession for us. John 1:1, 14; Heb. 2:9-18; 8:1, 2; 4:14-16; 7:25.
1980: #4 “God the eternal Son became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Through Him all things were created, the character of God is revealed, the salvation of humanity is accomplished, and the world is judged. Forever truly God, he became also truly man, Jesus the Christ he was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He lived and experienced temptation as a human being, but perfectly exemplified the righteousness and love of God. By His miracles He manifested God’s power and was attested as God’s promised Messiah. He suffered and died voluntarily on the cross for our sins and in our place, was raised from the dead, and ascended to minister in the heavenly sanctuary in our behalf. He will come again in glory for the final deliverance of His people and the restoration of all things. (John 1:1-3, 14; 5:22; Col. 1:15-19; John 10:30; 14:9; Rom. 5:18; 6:23; 2 Cor. 5:17-21; Luke 1:35; Phil. 2:5-11; 1 Cor. 15:3, 4; Heb. 2:9-18; 4:15; 7:25; 8:1, 2; 9:28; John 14:1-3; 1 Pet. 2:21; Rev. 22:20).
3. The Biblical Material. Each of the following biblical passages are typically have been used in support of the doctrine of the Trinity. Looking back, we can see how they point toward the full divinity of the Son and Spirit. But it would take three centuries before the full implications would be spelled out. It would be helpful for the class to look closely at each one of these from the perspective of believers who could scarcely imagine that the Messiah could be God incarnate:
Deuteronomy 6:4: The Old Testament statement about the oneness of God
Philippians 2:6-11: The classic NT statement about the son who “emptied himself” of his divinity while he was on earth.
Matthew 28:19: All three members of the godhead are mentioned, though their relationship to each other is not stated.
John 14-17: The key New Testament passage declaring that Jesus was/is God.
Bottom line: For those who struggle with trinitarian theology, words from Ellen White can be reassuring. Citing John 3:16, she exclaimed: “If one had no other text in the Bible, this alone would be a guide for the soul.” – Testimonies to Ministers, 370. Even more striking is her comment on Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. “Those whom Christ commends in the judgment may have known little of theology, but they have cherished His principles. Through the influence of the divine Spirit they have been a blessing to those about them.” – Desire of Ages 638