The illustrations given below are some of the best I have ever
read for understanding the Trinity. I very much recommend this
book [details at the end].

Chapter 8

God as Three and God as One

Once upon a time there was a committee. It had three members.
Now committees are things which exist to find something to do.
And so they set up a project. It was a complicated and long-term
development project which took a long time to get off the
ground. But it eventually got going, and the committee was
pleased with the way it seemed to be working. The project was a
long way from the committee's offices, however, so communication
was something of a problem. Soon the project developed some
teething problems, so the chairman paid occasional visits to it,
firing some of its directors and hiring new ones. But things got
worse, and the committee realized that it would have to monitor
the project on a more long-term basis.  So the three of them
decided that one of them would have to spend some time living
and working on the project, and put things right. But which one
would it be? 'Not me!' said the chairman. 'Someone has to stay
back at the office and keep an eye on things here. ' And so the
other two committee members drew straws, and the short straw was
drawn by Mr Davidson.  So Mr Davidson was sent off to the
project. 'Don't forget to keep in touch -- and we'll expect a
full report from you on your return' were the parting words of
the chairman.

This is really a rather pointless story, except that it
illustrates only too well the way in which a lot of Christians
think about the Trinity! In their thinking, Jesus is basically
one member of the divine committee, the one who is sent down to
earth to report on things and put things right with the
creation. Earlier we looked at biblical models of God (chapter
4), but nowhere in Scripture is God modelled on a committee.
The idea of an old man in the sky is bad enough, but the idea of
a committee somewhere in the sky is even worse! What, we wonder,
might be on their agendas? How often would the chairman have to
cast his vote to break a tie between the other two? The whole
idea is ludicrous. But how did it develop? Why do some
Christians think in this way? The answer is simply that they
have been taught about the Trinity so badly that this gross
misunderstanding is virtually inevitable. In the remaining
chapters we propose to explore why it is that Christians believe
in the Trinity, and what it is that they believe about it.

Where must our discussion start? Perhaps from the most obvious
of all places - the conviction of both Old and New Testament
writers that there is only one God, and that is the God of
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the
Lord is one' (Deuteronomy 6:4) -- a theme taken up, endorsed and
echoed by the New Testament writers (Mark 12:29; 1 Corinthians
8:6; Ephesians 4:6; 1 Timothy 2:5; James 2:19). The four points
in the Old Testament in which God speaks of himself in the
plural (Genesis 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Isaiah 6:8) are usually
understood as 'plurals of majesty', or the royal we', although
many Christian writers, such as Augustine, argued that these
verses already contained hints of a trinitarian way of thinking.
At no point in the New Testament is any suggestion made that
there is any God other than he who created the world, led Israel
to freedom, and gave her the Law at Sinai. The God who liberated
his people from their captivity in Egypt is the one and the same
God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

The New Testament emphasizes that there is only one God (Matthew
23:9; Mark 10:18; 12:29; John 5:44; 17:3; Romans 3:30; 1
Corinthians 8:4, 6; Galatians 3:20; Ephesians 4:6; 1 Timothy
1:17; 2:5; James 2:19; 4:12; Jude 25). It is also clear that God
is not identified with Jesus: for example, Jesus refers to God
as someone other than himself; he prays to God; and finally he
commends his spirit to God as he dies. At no point does the New
Testament even hint that the word 'God' ceases to refer to the
one who is in heaven, and refers solely to Jesus Christ during
the period of his earthly existence. This may seem a trivial
observation, but it is actually rather important.

Let's pause for a moment and see how far we've got. What we have
seen so far is that both Old and New Testaments are united in
their assertion that there is only one God, and that 'God' is to
be distinguished from Jesus Christ. So far, so good.  Earlier we
noted Thomas Jefferson's complaints about the 'incomprehensible
jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic', but so far we haven't
encountered any difficulties at all.

The difficulties really begin with the recognition of the
fundamental Christian insight that Jesus is God incarnate: that
in the face of Jesus Christ we see none other than the living
God himself. Although the New Testament is not really anything
like a textbook of systematic theology, there is nothing stated
in the great creeds of the church which is not already
explicitly or implicitly stated within its pages. Jesus is
understood to *act as God and for God*: whoever sees him, sees
God; when he speaks, he speaks with the authority of God; when
he makes promises, he makes them on behalf of God; when he
judges us, he judges as God; when we worship, we worship the
risen Christ as God; and so forth. The New Testament even hints
that he was active in the process of creation itself (John 1:3;
Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:3). Jesus is the one who can be
called God and Lord, who acts as creator, saviour and judge, who
is worshipped, and to whom prayers are addressed.

It will now be obvious that we are beginning to wrestle with the
real problem at issue: in one sense, Jesus is God; in another,
he isn't. Thus Jesus is God incarnate -- but he still prays to
God, without giving the slightest indication that he is talking
to himself! Jesus is not *identical* with God in that it is
obvious that God continued to be in heaven during Jesus'
lifetime, and yet Jesus may be *identified* with God in that the
New Testament has no hesitation in ascribing functions to Jesus
which, properly speaking, only God could do. One way of dealing
with the problem was to refer to God as 'Father' and Jesus as
'Son' or 'Son of God' (e.g., Romans 1:3; 8:32; Hebrews 4:14; 1
John 4:15), thus indicating that they had the common stock of
divinity, but that they could be distinguished, with the Father
being thought of as being in some way prior to the Son.

The situation is made still more complex, rather than resolved,
through the New Testament's insistence that the Holy Spirit is
somehow involved in our experience of both God and Jesus,
without being identical to either of them (John 16:14; 20:22;
Acts 5:9; 8:39; 16:7; Romans 8:9, 26, 34; 1 Corinthians 3:
17-18; 1 John 4:2; 5:8). In some sense, Jesus Christ *gives*, or
is the *source of*, the Spirit, but the Spirit and Jesus cannot
be directly *identified*. The Spirit of God, which the Old
Testament recognized as being present in the whole of creation,
is now experienced and understood afresh as the Holy Spirit of
the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Before we continue any further, we must consider the relation
between God and Jesus in more detail. The main point that
requires careful discussion is this: if Jesus is God, does this
not imply that God is Jesus? In other words, if Jesus Christ is
God, must we not draw the conclusion that God is to be
identified totally with Jesus Christ? And yet, as we saw above,
it is obvious from Jesus' own teaching that he thought that God
was still very much in heaven! The paradox we're beginning to
wrestle with is expressed well by St Germanus in his famous
seventh-century Christmas hymn:

	      The Word becomes incarnate 
              And yet remains on high!

But does not this call into question the traditional Christian
affirmation that Jesus is God? Perhaps some illustrations may
begin to cast some light on the basic problem we're facing

Let's suppose that you are on a liner as it crosses the Atlantic
Ocean from Europe to America. The journey makes a deep
impression upon you as you watch the great ocean swell bursting
against the ship and covering it with salty spray.  You can feel
the great untamed power of the ocean as it tosses the liner to
and fro. You are overwhelmed by its sheer immensity as day after
day passes without any sight of land.  But have you actually
experienced the Atlantic Ocean? Your immediate answer would be
an indignant 'Of course I have!' But on reflection, you might
begin to realize the difficulty which lies behind this simple

Think of how vast the Atlantic Ocean is: its untold depths, its
enormous span from North America to Europe, from one icy polar
sea to another. Think of the enormous volume of water which goes
to make up its bulk. Did you really experience and encounter all
that water? After all, your liner cut a remarkably narrow and
shallow path through that ocean. In terms of the sheer bulk of
the ocean, you probably experienced an infinitesimally small
percentage of that ocean. So your claim to have experienced it
would have to be called into question.  You may have sampled a
tiny fragment, but you didn't experience the whole thing. While
accepting this point, you would, however, have every right to
insist that you did experience the Atlantic Ocean. You know what
it is like through encountering it at first-hand. There is just
no way that you could have encountered every single molecule of
North Atlantic water, but you did have a real first-hand
experience of what that ocean is like.

Let's take another example to make this point clear. Like many
people, I vividly remember the moment when a human being set
foot on the moon for the first time. It was astonishing to think
that history was being made before our very eyes as we watched
the television pictures being relayed from the moon, showing
Neil Armstrong setting foot on alien ground for the first time.
And that same Apollo team brought back samples of moon-rock from
that mission, so that they could be analysed on earth. Now,
through the analysis of that rock we came to know more about the
moon. True, it was only a sample of the moon that was brought
back to earth (to bring the whole moon back would not have been
a particularly realistic possibility), but it allowed us a
direct encounter with the substance of the moon. It really was
the moon which was being studied in laboratories throughout the
world after the Apollo mission.

With these illustrations in mind, let's come back to the
question of the relation between Jesus and God. The doctrine of
the incarnation affirms that it really is God who we encounter
in Jesus Christ, but that this does not allow us to assert that
Jesus and God are identical. In the illustrations we find the
same difficulty being experienced. On the one hand, the
moon-rock isn't identical with the moon (after all, the moon is
still there in the night sky); on the other, it is identical
with the moon in that it lets us find out what the moon is like
-- it is a representative sample of what the moon is like.

Let's develop this moon-rock illustration further. Until about
1950 we knew the moon only as a distant object. It was something
far away which we could only find out about by looking at it
through our telescopes. But when the first samples of moon-rock
were brought back, we suddenly knew about the moon in a new and
direct way. In a way God is like the moon. Before Jesus Christ
came, we knew about him in a rather distant way. And then
suddenly, on account of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, we knew
him in a new, direct and exciting way. Of course, this new
advance didn't come about because of some human technological
advance, but through God's decision to become incarnate, to make
himself known to us in Jesus Christ. And so where before God
could have seemed to be little more than a distant idea, he now
becomes ' a person. And just as people were excited about
holding the first moon-rock, and knowing that they held in their
hands a bit of the same moon which illuminated the night sky, so
the first Christians got excited about being able to touch the
one who was none other than God incarnate. (1 John 1:1-4 conveys
this excitement well.) We don't need to figure out who God is
and what he is like, because he has taken the initiative and
told us.

Let's suppose that you are back at high school, and you are
asked to find out what gases are present in air. How would you
go about doing this? Perhaps the most obvious way would be to
take a sample of the air in a small container, and then submit
this sample to chemical or physical analysis. And on the basis
of the analysis of that small sample, you could say what gases
are present in the air. Now, what is the relation of that small
sample of air to the earth's atmosphere?  Obviously, they aren't
identical. All the earth's atmosphere hasn't been compressed
into your small container. But on the other hand, that sample
really is air -- it allows you to find out what the air is like.
It doesn't exhaust the earth's atmosphere, but it does allow you
to find out what it is like.

Jesus allows us to sample God. This is a remarkably helpful way
of beginning to think about the incarnation. It really is God
whom we encounter, but this doesn't mean that God is localized
in this one individual, Jesus Christ. Because Jesus is God, he
allows us to find out what God is like, to have a direct
encounter with the reality of God. And because God is not
totally identical with Jesus, he remains in heaven, in much the
same way as the earth's atmosphere remains there, despite the
fact that we've taken a small sample of it. As we have already
emphasized in an earlier chapter, God is just too big, too vast,
for us to handle -- and so God, knowing our weakness and
accommodating himself to it (to use Calvin's helpful phrase
again), makes himself available for us in a form which we can
cope with. The doctrine of the incarnation affirms that it
really is God who we encounter directly in Jesus Christ, just as
it affirms that God remains God throughout. A similar situation
exists in relation to the Holy Spirit. Again, Christianity
rightly insists that in the Holy Spirit we really encounter none
other than God himself, but that this doesn't mean that God can
be said to be identical with the Holy Spirit.


This is to wet your appetite to maybe get the book and read it.

Alister E. McGrath, Understanding the Trinity
Zondervan, 1990., $10.99, ISBN 0-310-29681-1

Not that I can improve in any way on what Prof. McGrath has said
[he is professor at the University of Oxford], but let me just
add a few thoughts on the moon-rock and atmosphere example.

Like the moon is unreachable for 'normal man' [or because of our
technological progress, make it a planet of the Andromeda galaxy
which we will never reach] so is God, who is transcendent and 
'beyond' our capabilities to understand and 'touch'. But in the 
incarnation God presents himself to us, he comes near as to make
himself known to his creatures.

But as in Islam, God has two aspects, the transcendent and the
nearness [nearer than your jugular vein]. And that is what the
illustration of the atmosphere is great for. The atmosphere is
all around us, we are in constant contact with it and in fact
without it we cannot live. If God would withdraw, all life would
immediately cease to exist. It is God who sustains all that 
exists, and if the oxygen would disappear all life would be gone 
in a matter of minutes. And though the atmosphere is all around us 
and is our very life, most people do not "understand" it and have 
rather limited knowledge what it is made up of. In the incarnation, 
the embodyment God places himself in this "human container" so that 
we can get to know him better. Though God "in his totality" stays 
unlimited, the sample which is "boxed in" is limited but nevertheless 
in essence authentically God. 

So these two similar examples seem to be very helpful to illustrate
how the incarnation relates to the transcendence and the nearness
of God, but a nearness which was nevertheless uncomprehended before
he became "like us". 

My prayer is that these thoughts will help us along the way of a 
better understanding between Muslims and Christians.

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