In The Biblical Trinity, Brandon D. Smith shows how God’s word reveals the Trinity. In this interview, we discuss the “problem” with the doctrine of the Trinity he’s trying to address and the reasoning behind writing the book.
Lexham Press: What is the story behind The Biblical Trinity?
Brandon D. Smith: This book aims to introduce the church to the doctrine of the Trinity in Scripture. Between teaching in the church and the university for over a decade, I’ve found time and again that the Trinity is a doctrine most Christians know they should affirm, but most Christians have a very difficult time actually articulating it.
But the doctrine of the Trinity is the fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith and separates us from all other religions, including monotheistic religions like Judaism and Islam, as well as groups that claim Christianity like Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Latter-Day Saints. This means that we should seek to understand better our triune God as he has revealed himself in his Word. My heart behind this book is to help the church do just that.
LP: What do you hope your book contributes?
Smith: The “problem” with the doctrine of the Trinity is that it can be confusing–in part because it tries to describe the God of the universe, and in part because people sometimes overcomplicate it. I hope to remove a bit of the mystique around this fundamental doctrine and give the church one way to understand its importance and clarity in Scripture. When churches think about teaching on the Trinity, I hope this book is one among many that can help.
LP: Why do you write?
Smith: I’ve always enjoyed writing and have been affirmed as a writer for most of my life, and the Lord has given me tons of opportunities to write. Because of all this, I see writing as part of my ministry to serve the church and the academy. I’ll keep writing so long as people want me to write and read what I write!
LP: Share with us something surprising about yourself that only your friends would know.
Smith: I love to go to the theater by myself. If I go with a friend, I require there to be a seat between us. Fellowship happens on the way to and from the theater! When the popcorn and soda is flowing and the screen is blaring… shhh.
In this excerpt from The Biblical Trinity, Smith presents four theological principles to help us understand how the Trinity is revealed in the Bible.
The Bible is a Trinitarian book. This statement may surprise you. After all, the word “Trinity” is found nowhere in the Bible. And if we are people of the Book, how can we describe the Bible this way if the doctrine is not even explicitly named in the pages of Scripture?
Doctrine is not a mere list or collection of the Bible’s words; rather, doctrine is a type of speech about God, which at times requires drawing together a set of themes and patterns across the scope of the biblical canon. So, seeing the doctrine of the Trinity will require more than mere proof texts or word studies—it will require following the logic and grammar of Scripture.
The doctrine of the Trinity seeks to explain the biblical data about who God is. As the biblical story unfolds, we see that God is one being (Deut 6:4). That said, the Bible also affirms that God is somehow three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As we will see throughout this book, to speak of the one God of the Bible is to speak of the Father, Son, and Spirit—they are each God, but they are not each other. Four basic theological principles can help us think about Scripture’s revelation of our triune God.
Nature. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. They are equal in nature because each is fully God. There is no hierarchy within the divine nature, such that the Son might be less divine than the Father, and so on. God cannot be something other than God, so the three persons have the same exact eternal existence, perfection, self-sufficiency, power, authority, knowledge, wisdom, and will because each person is fully God.
Relations. Again, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each God, but they are not each other. They are each fully God, not three parts of God’s one nature divided among them. But while there is no distinction in their nature as the one God, the primary distinction in the life of the triune God is the distinction between these three persons and their relations to one another. We see this clearly in the way the Bible describes them. The Son is the “only begotten Son” of the Father ( John 3:16). The Father, however, is unbegotten—the Bible never describes him as the Son of some other Father. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son ( John 14:26; 15:26), not the other way around. Each person, then, has a distinct relation to the others even as we rigorously affirm that they are the one God.
Inseparable operations. This principle of unity and distinction is most clearly shown in the undivided external acts of the triune God in creation and salvation. When one person of the Trinity acts, it is an indivisible act between all three. Because the Son and Holy Spirit are sent from the Father in salvation—primarily the Son becoming incarnate and the Holy Spirit being poured out at Pentecost—the personal distinctions are still maintained. For example, the Father doesn’t put on flesh and dwell among us; the Son does. The doctrine of inseparable operations offers a category to talk about how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit always act with one divine power, authority, and will. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons but not divided persons. Salvation, for instance, is the work of the one God, and that one God acts distinctly and yet inseparably as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And even when a biblical passage might only emphasize one or two persons acting, this doesn’t mean that the unnamed person of the Trinity is off taking a heavenly nap. Instead, we understand the biblical affirmation that God is never divided or separated, and thus the persons always act indivisibly.
The hypostatic union. When doing Trinitarian theology, we also have to deal with the mystery of the incarnation of the Son. The Son has existed eternally as God, yet he “became flesh and dwelt among us” in time and space ( John 1:14). He never ceased to be God, and yet became a man. As such, we affirm the hypostatic union: Christ is one divine person with two natures, fully God and fully man. He forgives sins with divine authority and yet bled and died for our sins as a perfect sacrifice; he created all things and sustains the universe with divine power, yet he also napped and ate; he existed before time began, and yet he walked the streets of Israel in the first century. The eternal Son—that same person—assumed a true human nature to live the perfectly obedient, sinless life that no mere human could. This mystery cannot be resolved or comprehended—it can only be affirmed based on the biblical witness.
These Trinitarian principles are derived from Scripture’s depiction of our triune God. They serve asa grammar that shapes our speech and helps us speak rightly about God. Ultimately, we must confess that the Trinity is a revealed mystery. It is revealed in that the triune God has revealed himself in three persons clearly in the Bible; it is not fully comprehensible in that we only “know in part” the mysteries of God (1 Cor 13:12). So, we should take confidence in the fact that God has revealed himself in a meaningful way, but the mystery should humble us before our mighty God. The question before us is how to see our triune God as he is revealed in Scripture.