Essay / Theology

What Did I Know About the Trinity Before I Knew Anything About the Trinity?

I recently wrote a book about the Trinity, after a couple of decades of thinking hard about it. In those 20 years, I’ve read a lot, and pondered a lot, and changed my mind about a few things. I’ve discovered that there are some questions without answers, and some things we can’t know.

But I’ve also learned that I knew a whole lot about the Trinity before I went on my twenty-year Trinitarian study binge. And it seems to me that most Christians know a lot more about the Trinity than they think they do. Especially if hearing the word “Trinity” makes your jaw tighten and your shoulders tense up, you need to know that if you’re saved by faith in Jesus, you already know the most important things about the Trinity.

If you know that God so loved the world that he sent his Son (John 3:16), you’re a long way into the Trinity. That’s because the Trinity is not just a set of mind-boggling facts about how God does calculus. Instead, it’s a super-condensed account of how God saves us: The Father sends the Son and the Spirit. I could go on and on about this. Oh, I did. You could read it in the book, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything.

I didn’t grow up with explicit Trinitarian theology ringing in my ears. I didn’t hear the word “Trinity” much in the Pentecostal church I grew up in in southern California. “Trinity” was kind of a big-church-downtown sort of word, a First Presbyterian word at least, if not downright Catholic. Out at the Foursquare church of my childhood, we talked a lot about Jesus (we were evangelical, after all), and about the Holy Spirit (we were Pentecostal, after all), but we tended to say less about God the Father, and I don’t remember hearing the big, Trinitarian picture put together very often when I was a kid.

Later on, when I did start hearing more about the Trinity (in a Methodist church in Kentucky that recited the Apostles’ Creed weekly and had the hymns of Charles Wesley in heavy rotation), it sounded almost exotic. And as I started into my own reading about the Trinity, I was almost in a panic about how much there was to know about it, how well it brought together all the main ideas of Christian faith, how much sense it made of the whole scope of the Bible. Who had been hiding this doctrine from the young me? And thus began the binge of studying. I wanted me some more of that Trinitarian doctrine. I had built up a hunger for it!

Looking back on my experience of growing up in that Foursquare church, though, a few things do echo in my memory. I have come to think that I knew a lot about the Trinity back then, without knowing how much I knew.

I’ll skip over the preaching and the Bible studies, because even though I can reconstruct them from tapes and from the notes in my Dad’s study Bible, I have to admit they don’t have much of a place in my childhood memories. I can’t distinguish clearly between what I really remember from then, and what I’ve read since then. I was a kid. I can tell you a lot about the texture of the carpet and the pew cushions, and how the staples under the pews held the fabric on, and how much gum was stuck under there. I can tell you which outside wall was best for catching lizards before the Wednesday night service. The Trinity? Not so much.

But I remember songs. I remember one song in particular that had me thinking Trinitarian thoughts in a powerful way. It was a little worship chorus that brought the big idea home to me as much as anything could have.

The song was “Father, I adore you.” It’s about as simple as a song can get:

Father, I adore you,
Lay my life before you,
How I love you.

Verse 2, replace “Father” with “Jesus.” Verse 3, replace “Jesus” with “Spirit.” So it develops a kind of serial Trinitarianism, with equal attention going to the three in turn. I suppose it would be possible to mis-interpret that, but since I knew there was only one God, the Father-Jesus-Spirit sequence of adoration and love all took place within a tidy monotheism. The nice thing was, a song that simple is perfect for singing as a round. The echoing Father verse wasn’t over before the leading Jesus verse began, and then the Spirit verse came in before the Jesus verse was done, and you could start over with the Father. It was southern California in the 70s, and these people were passionate about what they sang. The effect was haunting, and made a big impression on me.

It may not sound like much to go on for a Trinitarian theology, but it accomplished much for a kid who was going to grow up to think about the Trinity.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the song was brand new when we were singing it. I just figured Paul the Apostle or somebody wrote it, and that everybody had always sung it. But actually a twenty-year-old woman named Terrye Coelho Strom wrote it in 1972 right there in southern California. She had been a Christian for about a year, and was just driving in her car with her sister, making up songs and singing them to God on the way home to Fullerton from Newport Beach in a green Maverick. She got involved with Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, the Maranatha! music projects, and next thing you know this song is everywhere. She was just a new Christian praising God in a way that made sense. I think of it as the Jesus Movement finding its Trinitarian voice. We sang it, I got it. Loving God means adoring the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit.

The reason that made sense to me is that I knew the story of the Bible. I knew that God (think Old Testament) had sent his Son (think Gospels) and his Spirit (think Acts) to save us. When we sang serial doxology in a round to the one God, Father, Son, and Spirit, it made perfect sense and found lodging deep in my mind and heart. That’s the hook I would hang a heavy load of Trinitarian doctrine on later in life. And it was a peg that would hold all the doctrine I could hang on it. I knew a lot in knowing that song.

There are, of course, plenty of details to add to “Father, Jesus, Spirit, I adore you.” As a Christian grows into spiritual maturity, biblical literacy, and doctrinal understanding, there are things they need to understand. They need to avoid the heresies of modalism and subordinationism; they need to learn how to avoid “confounding the persons or dividing the essence,” as the old church fathers said.

But that’s easy. Any good intro to theology class can teach you that. Any good doctrine teacher can talk any alert student through that stuff in a couple weeks of class time, and wrap it up with a final exam combining multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, and true-or-false questions. You can get an A on the theo test with a little bit of studying. Take a class, I’ll teach you.

The big lesson about the Trinity comes in even earlier, settles down even deeper, reaches further into the corners of your being, and may last longer than the doctrinal understanding.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the fully-elaborated doctrine. I’m glad I know more about it, and can teach it to others. But when the clever, well-prepared theologian show up to put all the parts in place, they ought to remember that they’re not starting from scratch, and in terms of spiritual apprehension, they’re not necessarily improving on what the faithful already know, whether they know they know it or not.

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