What is the Trinity for?
I hear this question all the time, in churches and classrooms. It comes from different kinds of people: From well-established Christians who have the basics of a life of discipleship figured out, are spiritually healthy, and who are getting along just fine without thinking often of the Trinity. From apologists who wish there were one fewer “hard doctrine” to get past in trying to commend Christ to people. From sincere seekers who understand and accept most of what they know about Jesus, but can hear nothing but pseudo-algebra in the doctrine of the Trinity. From students who have cracked their poor brainpans on their first real attempt at understanding the doctrine, and aren’t eager for any further attempts. And above all, from the pragmatically-minded evangelicals who just can’t see how understanding the Trinity would change anything about what they are already doing.
Why complicate a nice, simple religion with this Trinity stuff? What is the Trinity for?
But the first and clearest answer has to be that the Trinity isn’t ultimately for anything, any more than God is for the purpose of anything. Just as you wouldn’t ask what purpose God serves or what function he fulfills, it makes no sense to ask what the point of the Trinity is, or what purpose the Trinity serves. The Trinity isn’t for anything beyond itself, because the Trinity is God. God is God in this way: God’s way of being God is to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simultaneously from all eternity, perfectly complete in a triune fellowship of love.
The good news of the gospel is that God has opened up the dynamics of his triune life and given us a share in that fellowship. But all of that good news only makes sense against the background of something even better than the good news: the goodness that is the perfection of God himself. The doctrine of the Trinity is first and foremost a teaching about who God is, and God the Trinity would have been God the Trinity whether he had revealed himself to us or not, whether he had redeemed us or not, whether he had created us or not.
Obviously, these “whether or not” statements are counterfactual: they are about situations that are not the case. God has in fact made himself known, has redeemed his people, and, to say the most obvious thing, has created us. That being the case, what is the good of asking hypothetical questions about what would have been the case if God had not done these things he has done? Indeed, isn’t it even ungrateful to forget, or to pretend to forget, God’s mighty acts? No, in this case, far from being ungrateful, it is an opportunity to become more grateful.
Hypothetical questions are useful tools for understanding how things really are, by imagining how they might have been otherwise. They can be used as mental cures for sick patterns of thought. If you are tempted to think that God’s triunity is something he puts on in order to reach some further goal, or to interact with the world, you can cure yourself of that tendency by thinking away the world and asking yourself: If there had been no world, would God have been Father, Son, and Spirit? If you are tempted to think of Christmas as the time when the Son of God first began to exist, you can cure yourself by asking: If the Son of God had not taken on human nature, would he still have been the Son of God?
The answer to these hypothetical questions is yes: God would have been Trinity with no world, and the Son of God did in fact pre-exist his incarnation. God minus the world is still God the Holy Trinity. In the words of the hymn by Frederick W. Faber:
When Heaven and Earth were yet unmade
When time was yet unknown,
Thou, in Thy bliss and majesty,
Didst live, and love, alone.
The emphasis in these excellent lines is on God’s self-sufficient “bliss and majesty.” Faber would be quick to point out that the final word, “alone,” is very different from “lonely.” Otherwise God could not “love, alone.” Indeed, God is the only one who can love alone, for Trinitarian reasons: God the Father loves God the Son in the love of God the Holy Spirit.
Is it too bold of us to declare what God was like, or what he was doing, before creation? It requires boldness, to be sure, but only the boldness of the New Testament. One of the characteristic differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament is that the New Testament is bold to make such statements. Look, for instance, at the way the New Testament takes a step further back with its declaration of salvation: Where God declares in the old covenant, “I have chosen you,” the new covenant announces that “he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.” The prophets do not make declarations about what happened “before the foundation of the world,” but the apostles do.
The main reason for this is that the coming of Christ forced the thought of the farther down, into the ultimate foundation of God’s ways and works. When Christ brought salvation, the apostles had to decide whether the life of Jesus Christ was one more event in the series of God’s actions, or whether, in meeting the Son of God, they had come into contact with something that was absolutely primal about God himself. Christ did not leave them the option of considering him just another prophet, or servant of God. They even had to decide where to start in telling the story of Jesus: With his birth? With pre-exilic prophecies about his coming (as in Mark)? With a genealogy connecting him to Abraham (as in Matthew) or all the way back to Adam (as in Luke)? Ultimately, they knew that the best way to acknowledge Jesus as the eternal Son of God was to go back further than the foundation of the world and confess that he had been there previous even to that. That backward step beyond the foundation of the world is a step into the eternal nature of God. So the Old Testament starts with the foundation of the world: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” But the story of Jesus starts before that, because the Son of God was already present by the time of the beginning: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
As a result, we are speaking from solid New Testament ground when we say that God was the Trinity from all eternity, or that God is Father, Son, and Spirit without reference to the creation of the world. Scottish bishop Robert Leighton (1611-1684), when his commentary on 1 Peter brought him to the phrase “before the foundation of the world,” (1 Peter 1:20), elaborated on this fact:
Before there was time, or place, or any creature, GOD, the blessed Trinity was in Himself, and as the Prophet speaks, inhabiting Eternity, completely happy in Himself: but intending to manifest and communicate His goodness, He gave being to the world, and to time with it; made all to set forth His goodness, and the most excellent of His creatures to contemplate and enjoy it.
Imagining God without the world is one way to highlight the freedom of God in creating. Thinking away the world makes it obvious that God didn’t have to make a world. Creation was not required, not mandatory, not exacted from God, neither by any necessity imposed from outside, nor any deficit lurking within the life of God. The Bible does not directly answer the question “Why did God create anything at all,” but it does let us know what some of the most glaringly wrong answers to that question would be. It would be wrong to say that God created because he was lonely, unfulfilled, or bored. God is free from that kind of dependence.
Before the foundation of the world, God was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s just what it is to be God, according to his revelation.