The Utilitarian Trinitarian

These are some ideas I sketched out after church on Trinity Sunday. They may or may not warrant a post, but here we are.

Hey, Christians. Real talk. What’s the deal with the Trinity? Isn’t it kinda weird? I mean, the word isn’t even in the Bible. It’s just one of those things we have to believe in to be a Christian, right?

Basically, Trinity says that the one God exists in three persons: Father, Son and Spirit; each distinct but of the same essence. The doctrine was formulated in the early centuries of the church to establish the borders of orthodox belief against the heresies of that day. Among other things, it was a way to assert both the divinity of Jesus AND Christian monotheism in the context of the pagan religion of the Roman Empire. Since we are very far removed from that context, we might wonder what value or purpose such a doctrine might have today. But we usually don’t.

For most Christians today, the Trinity is simply a litmus test for true belief. We affirm it because that’s what real Christians do. The fact that it is profoundly paradoxical and abstruse doesn’t really bother us, because it rarely comes up.

I consider myself a utilitarian trinitarian. That is, not unlike the forgers of the doctrine, I think its true value is in its function. I’m not sure it makes any sense as a standalone assertion, but its internal logic can work wonders in keeping other theological ideas in check. I offer a quick example.

Trinity vs. Good Cop/Bad Cop Theology

My favorite thing about trinitarian logic is the way it defuses and debunks any theological system that makes God into a monster and Jesus into the hero that saves us from that monster. For example, extreme formulations of Calvinism portray God as wrathful and punitive in his posture toward humans, with meek and mild Jesus negotiating a concession of forgiveness for the elect. According to the doctrine of the Trinity, this is blasphemous! If Jesus and the Father are of the same essence, that is, made out of the same stuff, it is deeply problematic to conceive of them as two figures with conflicting agendas, one offended and wrathful, the other compassionate and selfless. God is either one or the other.

Reformed and Evangelical theologies reach their conclusions by systematizing the “attributes of God” from the Old Testament, and then forcing Jesus into that mold, thus “proving” that he is divine. But that is all backwards! Jesus sought to correct and clarify his people’s ideas about what God is like. He didn’t come to endorse and confirm every notion they’d ever had about God, he came to challenge and subvert them. No one on earth has ever met the Father, but we have met the Son. Jesus is how we know what God is like. If your God doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s not the Christian God.

Or we might say it like this: Jesus doesn’t come to change God’s disposition toward us, he comes to reveal it. This is trinitarian.