Daniel Thimell, The Trinity, United With Humanity
Daniel Thimell is Associate Professor of Theological-Historical Studies at Oral Roberts University. Dr. Thimell earned his Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen in 1993.
The Trinity is the foundation for the doctrine of God’s love and the knowledge of God. We are called to participate in his life.
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J. Michael Feazell: The doctrine of the Trinity is something that, for many Christians, is an abstract thing… it’s “I don’t know much about it, and what difference does it make?” What difference does it make?
DT: The Trinity is tremendously relevant to everyday life. It’s true that some people, because it seems abstract or puzzling, can’t get their minds around it and so they say it’s an article of faith, and leave it at that. A member of my congregation that I served in southern California was raised in a Unitarian church, where they don’t believe in the deity of Christ or of the Holy Spirit — there’s simply God out there who made everything. But once she discovered the joy of a Trinitarian understanding of God, she said to me, “God seems so much more personal to me now.”
The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that Jesus Christ is not an emissary of God — he’s God himself, condescending to step into our life, take our humanity upon himself, to experience our pain, struggles, temptations, and challenges. Through it all he was faithful to his Father, faithful to his purposes, all the way to dying and rising again for us. So the first thing the Trinity does, is it makes God personal to us.
Another key aspect of the Trinity is that the Trinity preserves for us an understanding of God as love. If God is a solitary being for all eternity and then created a world, how can we understand that God would be loving? We can understand that he might decide to treat us in a way that we might think is nice, but can God know what is love, if he’s a solitary being? But the Bible says that the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father. There’s a relationship of love, of union and communion between God the Father and God the Son that has been going on since all eternity past. The Holy Spirit participates in this tri-unity of love with the Father, the Son, and the Spirit experience. The Trinity is the foundation for the doctrine of the love of God.
It’s also important for the knowledge of God. If God had not come to us as a human, in Christ, then how do we know what God is like? Jesus may have said some inspiring things about God which we all like, but how do we know he’s right? Maybe someone else would come along with a different picture of God, and who’s to say? But if Jesus is God himself come among us to open his heart to us, then God becomes personal, touchable, believable. So the Trinity is a very practical teaching.
Sometimes we get caught up in concepts that don’t help us. A good way to talk about the Trinity is as a communion of three persons — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who all share the same reality from all eternity. They’re inseparable: you never have one without the other two. It’s a communion of three persons — the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. It’s not as if God was two persons and then at Christmas suddenly God morphs into three. God always was three, and God the Son becomes man the first Christmas.
JMF: For most people, you can understand Father, Son, and Spirit. But the idea that Father, Son, and Spirit are one God is troubling. How can people be helped with that?
DT: We know they are one because it’s declared many times in Scripture. Jesus said, “I and the Father are one. He who has seen me has seen the Father.” He was declaring a one-ness between himself and the Father. How can they be one? One powerful teaching that the church has had for many centuries goes back to the Cappadocian divines—the doctrine of perichoresis. Perichoresis is saying that the three persons of the Trinity interpenetrate each other. They mutually indwell each other.
This isn’t just some neat idea that some theologian thought up in an ivory tower one day. Jesus said, “The Father dwells in me and I dwell in the Father.” There’s a mutual indwelling, and when we understand that the Father, Son, and the Spirit are spiritual or spirits, we can see how they could interpenetrate each other, or mutually indwell each other. In this way, among other things, you not only have the oneness, they all interpenetrate the same reality, but we also can understand how when we encounter one person of the Trinity, God the Father, or God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit, we’re really up against all three. You can’t separate them.
JMF: There’s also the term “hypostatic union.” How does that fit with who Christ is and who we are in him?
DT: The hypostatic union refers to the union of God with humanity in the Incarnation. Some people think of Jesus as being God in a man, and they explain the puzzle of the incarnation of Jesus being God and man by saying, “The Spirit of God came and descended on Jesus, and that’s the incarnation.” That is not the incarnation. We Christians believe, based on Scripture, that God dwells in us, but we’re not an Incarnation, we’re not the Incarnation. The Incarnation was a union of the person of the Word, Jesus (as we call him since his life on earth), with humanity.
This is an amazing idea — that God united himself with the human race. There are some challenges to that, because we don’t normally think of ourselves as being one bundle of humanity. We tend to think of, I am an individual, you’re an individual, you have your problems, I have mine. We think of ourselves as independent of one another, as autonomous actors. There is a sense of individual identity and individual responsibility, but the Bible also sees us as being part of one bundle of humanity so that what affects one affects all. The Bible says about the sin of Adam, “One died, therefore all died.”
When Christ united himself with humanity, he didn’t unite himself with a particular man who lived in Judea long ago—he united himself with the humanity of the entire human race. That’s why sometimes we refer to this doctrine as “the all-inclusive humanity,” because he includes all of us in his humanity, so that his representation of us is not just a legal one, where we agree to let him represent us, perhaps, or God agrees to treat him as if he is standing in for us, but he includes us in himself, so that what happens to him happens to us, so that he has lived our life, but we were there in him. He’s died our death, but when he died, we died. When he rose, we rose.
This is why Paul writes to the church in Colossians chapter 3: “Set your sight on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” You have died. Christ died long ago, but when he died, you died. We’re included in his humanity.
JMF: If we’re already in union with Christ, he’s already drawn us into himself, and as part of humanity, we’re seated with Christ at the right hand of the Father, our life is hidden with him and so on. How does repentance work with that? If we’re already included with Christ, where does repentance come in, and what is its role in the context of that relationship?
DT: We often think of repentance as being a condition of grace. We sometimes say, for example, “That person did something mean to me, and I’m not going to forgive him unless he’s sorry and unless he changes.” That’s the way we’re used to treating other people. But the amazing news of the gospel is that God doesn’t say, “After you repent, after you change, then I’ll forgive you.”
If we could transform ourselves, if we could turn over a new leaf, then Christ didn’t need to come — he should have just come to earth to congratulate us. In fact, we’re not able to repent unless he comes in and transforms us. On one hand, Christ already lived our life, he took us up into his life, but on the other hand, we’re now called to respond to the gospel. We’re called to say yes. We’re called to say, “I confess Christ died for me. I confess: when he died, I died.” Repentance is a lifelong process of becoming who I already am in Christ. Repentance, rather than being a condition of grace, is a response to it.
JMF: We often talk about participation in the life of Christ. How does that work?
DT: Participation is a relational term. It’s talking about living in a relationship with Christ. The Bible records that “God created man, male and female, created he them.” Adam and Eve’s being as humans was as a being-in-relation. They were created as male-and-female, not just as a male over here and a female over there, but as persons in relation.
We’re relational beings. God is a relational being. God is a God of relationships as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We’re invited to participate, to live in a relationship with One who has already included us in himself in his life, death, and resurrection. We’re called to say yes, we’re called to believe, and yet paradoxically, our believing is a gift of God. Our believing is a sharing in the faith of Jesus. “The life I live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” [Galatians 2:20]
JMF: When we talk about faith being a gift of God, is it a gift that he gives to only some people? Not everybody believes, so is it a gift he just gives to some, or is it a gift he gives to all, and they don’t accept the believing or the faith? How does that work?
DT: This is one of the oldest questions that the Christian church has discussed — and debated for many centuries. Some have said, “God decides who gets the gift of faith, and if you’re predestined to believe, you’ll believe, and that’s that.” Others have said. “No, God doesn’t have anything to say in it. All he does is lay the offer out, and then we decide whether to believe.” Both sides have an element of truth, and they’re both mistaken.
It is true that faith is a gift of God. It’s God’s grace. It’s not because I was pious enough or good enough to make the right decision, make the right move, have the right attitude to God. It’s also not that God pushed certain buttons so that some people believe and become Christians, and the others don’t.
If I believe, it is because God has granted me faith, but I need to embrace the faith that he offers me. There’s no way around that. If I become a Christian, it is because God draws me. The Bible says, “No one comes to me unless the Father draws him.” So if I come to faith in Christ, it’s because the Father drew me. He wooed me. Augustine says, “God is the infallible seducer.” He draws us to himself. I became a Christian when I was seven years old. I went for it and confessed Christ as my Savior. But it was the Holy Spirit who drew me to God at that time.
What about those who don’t believe? If God gives faith, and other people don’t believe, God must not have given them faith. At that point we have to say, “No, that’s not quite right.” The Bible has passages that make clear that there still is the responsibility to believe, to say yes. For example, in 2 Corinthian 5 when Paul says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” On one hand, that’s complete — grace is already there for us. We’re already reconciled, in that sense, by what Christ has done. But in the next verse he says, “Therefore, we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” So we are called to be reconciled. We’re summoned to believe. We’re summoned to say yes. We’re summoned to take up our crosses and follow him.
The Bible holds us accountable. It says, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?” And, “He who believes in the Son of God has eternal life and he who believes not does not have eternal life” in John 3. So I summarize that question about how some believe, and some not, by saying that in the Bible, if I believe, blame God, if I don’t believe, blame me. If it looks like I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too, that’s simply the witness of Scripture.
JMF: Some people say that it’s dangerous to put too much emphasis on grace, and that the primary emphasis needs to be on godly living, and grace is a part of that. But if you put too much emphasis on grace, then it’s dangerous, and you’ll fall into antinomianism. There seems to be a great fear of that among some people.
I’ve seen talk shows where there are people representing various streams of Christianity, and some have said, “If we take away hell as a means of scaring people into doing the right thing, then everything will fall apart. We’ve got to have some kind of a hammer to hold over people’s heads to make them behave right,” as though that’s the primary issue. [They think that if] you get carried away with all this grace talk, everybody’s going to run amuck and do what’s right in their own eyes.
DT: It’s well-meant as a genuine pastoral concern, that whatever is preached should have a good impact on people’s lives. I understand that. At the same time, I get concerned when we make pragmatic concerns our primary criterion. We’re looking for “what works.” We want to have leverage to use on people so we can get the results we want. We’ll preach hellfire to scare people into living the right life so they don’t do bad things.
The Bible does speak about last judgment. It speaks about hell as being the destiny of those who reject Christ. But when we use that lever and say “If you step out of line you’ll go to hell,” we not only are contradicting the gospel (which declares that it’s by grace that we’re saved, not by works), we’re also damaging people’s spiritual lives by creating a mean God who is not a God you’d want to draw near, but an angry God with fierce streaks on his face who detests the individual. The pastoral consequences of that are bad.
Sometimes we want to use levers with people to try to raise money for the church. We’ll say, “If you give, then God will give you even more money back. If you give $100, God will give $1000. If you give $200, he’ll give a million, and so forth.” And it seems to work! People say, “That would be great! I’ve got some financial difficulty. I’ll give.” But this makes God into more of a Coke machine than a loving Father — a God who you have to make deals with — a God that you have to connive with financially.
But God loves to give good gifts to his children. We don’t have anything to offer him. He has all things already. When we get concerned, when we use pragmatic concerns to determine theology, we always end up damaging the people’s relationship with God, damaging their understanding of God. It makes them draw further away from God rather than be closer to him.
JMF: In the Old Testament, there are examples of where Israel disobeys and God sends a plague or a punishment on them. How are we to understand that in terms of the New Testament, when we find Christ presenting God as full of grace, mercy, and compassion? When we find something bad happening in our lives, we look at the Old Testament and we think “God is sending this punishment on me because I’ve sinned.” How are we to look at that?
DT: You’d get different answers if you asked various people. This is an area that we don’t hear about much nowadays, but to my mind the Bible speaks of not a spectator God, but an active God — a God who is involved in life. The Bible says, “In all things God works for good to those who love him.” God is working in all things. God was working in the thorn in the flesh that he sent to Paul. Calvin explained that by saying that there are two causes behind things that happen, there’s a divine cause, and then there could be what he calls a secondary cause.
Some individual might go to harm someone and attack that person. God didn’t push a button and tell that person, “Go and attack that person.” But God is nevertheless working in that event to bring about good. He’s not stumped by history, he’s not stumped by what evil people try to do. The classic example of that is the cross, where the Bible makes clear that Jesus was crucified by the set foreknowledge and purpose of God. Evil men perpetrated it, and they’re held accountable. God didn’t push a button and tell them to murder Jesus. But God, in his providence, takes the worst thing that could happen and turns it into the best thing that could happen. The execution of the innocent Son of God is turned into our eternal salvation.
When bad things happen, God is working for our good. The Bible says, “Whom the Lord loves, he chastens.” We need to ask God to give us a teachable heart when we’re going through a difficult time. We can ask for help, we can ask for deliverance, but we can also ask, “Lord, what are you trying to show me through this?”
JMF: Are you working on any projects right now that we can look forward to?
DT: I’ve been working on a book on our life in Christ. That’s been a tremendously exciting topic for me, because all of our lives as Christians are taken up into life of Christ, and I want people to see what a difference that makes for their marriage, what a difference it makes for their life before God as they’re trying to grow in godliness, what a difference it makes for the things we’re called to do as Christians — to see that in all things we’re called to abide in Christ and draw from the life of Christ in all that we do.
The Bible says, “Christ in you is the hope of glory.” Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ.” One Christian was telling a friend that this was his life’s motto — “I can do all things through Christ.” The friend looked at him, scowled, and said, “You mean you can’t do anything without Jesus?” He said, “Yeah, I can go out and make a big mess of things and stumble around,” he says, “but if I want to do something worthwhile in life, I need to do it through Christ.” I’m working on that as a project.
JMF: Many people look at the concept of “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” as being from the perspective of “I will ask Christ to help me with everything I do,” and help me do this, help me do that. As long as I’m asking Christ to help me do everything, then I am participating with Christ, I’m doing all things through Christ who strengthens me. But if I don’t pray that and I’m not thinking about that, then I’m not living in Christ — so therefore you need to be praying the way I’m praying, otherwise Christ isn’t in your life.
DT: That turns a good promise of Scripture into a formula. I don’t think that’s the point. We have died. Our life is hidden with Christ in God. I am included in Christ, and I can’t extract myself from that union. I am intertwined with the life of Christ in my life.
JMF: That’s the foundation of our hope, isn’t it? If any point rested on how well we do something and it wasn’t entirely by the grace of God (what he’s already done and made of us in Christ), then that’s the point where we’ll fall short, and it will all fall apart.
DT: Right. I also think that we need to be careful that we don’t bring in Jesus as a means to our ends. You know, I can do all things through Christ, so I’m going to ask Jesus to help me with my plan or my project. We need to open ourselves to the Lord and ask, “What are you trying to do in my life?” Then we need to depend on him to help us accomplish his purposes.
JMF: Yeah. It’s like praying, “Lord, please make the Cubs win.”
DT: Exactly. Let me hit a home run.
JMF: Let the slot machine hit the jackpot.
JMF: As we finish up, what is something that you would most want people to know about God?
DT: I would want them to know that in Christ, God is closer to them than the air they breathe, and that God loves you tenderly, unconditionally, and he is ready right now, right where you are, to take you to a new level in your life. He’s already forgiven you, he invites you to trust in his forgiveness, he’s already secured for you a place in heaven. Believe it. Live your life out of Christ and spend your journey with Jesus — enjoy and entrust knowing that God will never, ever let you down.
JMF: That makes me have to ask this — What if I’m a rat? How do I cope with my rat-ness in light of what you just said?
DT: If you’re a rat, you’re a part of a rat race, because all of us have some rattiness to us. [Oliver] Cromwell once was having someone paint a picture of himself, and the painter was painting a rather idealized portrait. Cromwell stopped the artist and said, “Paint me warts and all.” The Bible paints us warts and all. God knows those flaws. He knows flaws that you and I have, that we don’t even realize, and he still cherishes us. He loves us dearly, like a loving father carries a picture of his son in his wallet. God, as it were, carries a picture of us in his wallet. He knows all about those flaws, and he still loves us and cherishes us infinitely.
JMF: That’s what makes the gospel good news. Not the hope that maybe someday I’ll measure up to some kind of perfection, but the fact of what Christ has already done.
DT: You’re already loveable, and he wants to transform you into the image of Christ, and if it takes 1000 years, that’s fine. When he’s through transforming you into the image of Christ, Christian, he won’t love you any more than he does right now.