Why Trinity Analogies All Stink (With Help from Quantum Physics!)

“The Trinity is like…” Talk about a dangerous way to start a sentence. As Christians, we believe strongly in the strange and paradoxical truth that in some way, God is both one God and yet also exists three co-equal, co-eternal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is a deep mystery. Certain details of how this works will always be beyond the furthest limits of human understanding.

Of course, that’s not always a helpful thing to say around skeptics and curious new believers. They want answers that make sense to them. So naturally we try to use analogies. This is, in my opinion (though with the support of many Reformed theologians), a bad idea. Analogies for the Trinity have a huge flaw: the reality of the Trinity is so unique that all analogies will fall in line with some heresy or another.

Speaking of heresies about the Trinity, I should explain the two main kinds of heresies possible. The first group is called modalist or Sabellian heresies. In this kind of heresy, there is really only one person of God, and He acts or reveals Himself in different ways, modes, or means at different times. Sometimes He interacts with us as Father, other times as Son, and other times the Spirit. Some heresies in this group would say that God was the Father, then became the Son, and then became the Spirit. The defining point of these heresies is that God only exists as one person, and the Father, Son, and Spirit are all basically different aspects or parts of that person.

The other kind of heresy you can fall into with the Trinity is tri-theism. Tri-theism is simply a belief in three Gods. There are many ways of looking at the Trinity which basically say there is the Father God, the Son God, and the Spirit God, all separate beings who work together in creation and salvation history. This is also a serious heresy, since all tri-theism violates the basic creed of God’s earliest covenant revelation: “The LORD your God is One.”

So, here’s where analogies fail. All analogies for the Trinity end up basically agreeing with one of these two kinds of heresy. Want some examples? Here they are:

  • The Trinity is like an egg. This analogy says the members of the Trinity are like an egg: an egg has shell, white, and yoke while being one egg. But this acts like the members of the Trinity are basically just parts of one person, which would be a Sabellian heresy. Or, for that matter, you could interpret this analogy as a tri-theistic heresy, since the shell, white, and yoke are each totally different materials. 
  • The Trinity is like the three states of water. This analogy uses ice, water, and water vapor to explain the three members of the Trinity. Three forms but one substance. This is a blatant modalist heresy, since in this case the one substance of water just switches between different forms. Honestly, this is practically textbook modalism.
  • The Trinity is like mustard. Just one word, man: tri-theism. At best.
  • The Trinity is like someone being husband, father, and employee. This analogy is totally modalist, trying to make the different roles of one normal person comparable to one God substance existing eternally as three persons.
  • The Trinity is like three-in-one shampoo. I’m sure that sounds silly, but I didn’t come up with this one. Using three-in-one shampoo for the Trinity is basically tri-theistic, saying the Trinity is like three totally different substances mixed in one container.

I could go on, but the basic point should appear by now. Trinity analogies inevitably line up with one heresy or another. This happens because nothing we can see, touch, or understand is actually anything like the Trinity.

Here is where I drag in quantum physics. See, in quantum physics there is something called the Heisenburg uncertainty principle. According to this principle, having equally precise knowledge of both a particle’s position and the particle’s momentum (think “speed” for simplicity if you don’t understand) is impossible. The more you know one of them, the less you know the other. The only ways to precisely measure a particle’s position throw off the momentum too much to measure both, and the only ways to precisely measure a particle’s momentum make nailing down the location impossible. So there’s a trade-off: the more you drill into a particle’s position, the less knowledge you have of the momentum, and vise-versa. If you want to know both at the same time, you have to be content with only a very imprecise and vague knowledge of both.

I think the Trinity ends up in a similar situation. Our God is has revealed Himself both in one-ness and three-ness. Yet there is a trade-off in how precisely we can understand these two realities. The more we try to nail down God’s one-ness, the more we lose sight of His three-ness. The more we try to nail down God’s three-ness, the more we lose sight of His one-ness. If we want to balance these two realities Biblically, we find ourselves with no choice. We cannot try too hard to analyze or analogize, or we will end up seeing a God who is basically all one-ness and no three-ness (modalist/Sabellian heresy), or a God who is basically all three-ness and no one-ness (tri-theist heresy). If you want to have a God who is truly both three and one, who is three-in-one, we have to check our normal reasoning and analogies at the door. All we can do is humbly bow at God’s self-revelation.

This, of course, is the necessary way of faith. If we believe in a God who is greater than we are, we have to accept that sometimes truths about Him are greater than any truths we understand, and He cannot always fit into the categories and ideas we are used to. So how else can I conclude but to use the praise of the Apostle Paul?

Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His being and untraceable His essence! For who has known the nature of the Lord? Or who has ever explained Him? Or who has ever understood Him, and deserved to be renowned? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever! Amen.

Why Trinity Analogies All Stink (With Help from Quantum Physics!)

The Bible Is Not a House of Cards

What do very many Christians and very many atheists have in common? Believe it or not, they view the Bible pretty similarly. What could an atheist and a Christian both think about the Bible? Both often act as though the Bible were a house of cards.

We’ve all seen card houses. As children, we all made them. They were always a very difficult project, trying to stack each flimsy card just right to keep the whole building from falling down. And fall down they did. At the slightest disturbance, if even one card was removed or wiggled, the entire house crashed.

To far too many people, the Bible works more or less the same way. Every statement in Scripture is a card, and the whole Bible is the house. If a single statement were found false, mistaken, or even just a bit uncertain, the falling card would mean the collapse of all 66 (or 73, for my filthy papist Catholic friends) books and indeed the Christian faith as at all trustworthy.

The logic behind treating the Bible this way is usually quite straightforward. According to the Christian side, the Bible is the word of God. Since God can’t lie or even make a mistake, every word in the Bible must be certainly true. Therefore if a single word in Scripture were less than completely true, the Bible could not be God’s word. So Christianity is false.

But this is a completely wrong way to approach the Bible. Let’s say we found for sure a definite error or contradiction in Scripture. What would be the possible implications? There are, generally speaking, two options:

  1. The house of cards logic is correct, which means that because of this error, the entire Bible is not trustworthy. So Christianity is almost certainly false. This position is taken by many pop-level atheists, and is also the fear many Christians would have if they found an error.

  2. The house of cards logic is false. Even though there’s an error, the Bible can still be considered the word of God. But in this case the “word of God” does not mean every last individual word comes straight from God’s mouth. A more flexible theory of Biblical inspiration is probably true (see my post on the different theories). Christianity can still be true. This position is assumed by very many Christians outside pop-theology.

Obviously, option 2 is preferable to option 1 for multiple reasons. For one, remember that Christianity is based on Jesus first, and the Bible second. Historically, Jesus did rise from the dead, regardless of whether the Bible has errors or not, so Christianity is true. As well, remember that no other book is held up to an all-or-nothing standard. If the Bible was not the word of God, we would have to treat what the Bible says just like we treat what every other book says. In that case there would be still good reasons to believe that Scripture is at least generally reliable, that Jesus did rise from the dead, that the apostles spoke authoritatively for Christ’s church, and even that the Old Testament is a useful historical resource. Based on pure facts, evidence, and human reason all of this would be true even if the Bible wasn’t God’s word.

If that is not enough to persuade you, I would also suggest that the Bible can easily be God’s word even if there are errors. There are several theories of Biblical inspiration out there. Some allow for errors, some don’t, but most of them still call Scripture “God’s word,” say that He actually speaks using the Bible, and agree that our Bible has final authority over the faith. I wrote a post about the major theories a while back, and you can look at that list to understand what I mean if you don’t. So if the Bible did have an error, maybe verbal, plenary inspiration would be wrong, but something else like dynamic inspiration—which does say the Bible is God’s word and final authority—could be the truth.

So I propose a different analogy for the Bible. God’s word is not a house of cards, but a house of many materials built on a firm foundation. That foundation is the history of Jesus Christ, including the history of the Israel who brought Him into the world, the history of His own life, and the history of the church of His apostles. All of these things really happened, and behind them all is the work and word of God, His powerful acts and equally powerful words by which He brought Himself to humanity. Even if the Bible was never written down and passed on to us, this all still happened in our own space and time history. God through Jesus is a physical part of our human past. So with this firm of a foundation, even if there were cracks or rot in the walls or floors, the house of God’s word would still stand.

The Bible, then, is more than anything a testimony to these foundational facts of history. What God did and said in the past are now fixed realities, and the words of Scripture tell us about them. We can see the Bible as the word of God because God’s own prophets and apostles, led by the power of the Holy Spirit, wrote it as permanent witness to God’s revelation in the human world, including His greatest and final revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ.

If this is how we see the Bible, then errors become less important. The text we read in Scripture is the, to use an analogy, courtroom testimony of witnesses to what God has done and said. So even if the witnesses were to make mistakes, forget things, or interpret something wrongly, what God actually did and said remains solid and fixed. The Bible is built on a firm foundation, and so is no house of cards but the house of the wise man.

All this, by the way, is not to suggest that the Bible actually is full of errors and needs special defense. No, I think that Scripture speaks for itself (actually, the Holy Spirit speaks for, through, and with Scripture), showing us that we can trust the Bible. Yet for the sake of the faith of many people, and to keep ourselves from being ridiculous before skeptics, I do propose this understanding so that we do not have to worry about errors in the Bible even if they do exist, since our faith is focused on something, make that Someone, who is Himself the undefeatable Truth. My concern is truly a pastoral one: I want people to know their faith in Christ needn’t be shaken just because they can’t find any answer to reconcile two genealogies or Resurrection accounts.

In case this isn’t clear, by the way, I’m not actually saying there are errors in the Bible. I’m not convinced that there are, but I definitely wouldn’t stake my life that there aren’t. If we are to be faithful to the God who created the real life world, we have to judge that based on what is actually in the Bible, not by our doctrines of inspiration. What we believe about the book God gave us has to be based on what is really true about what He gave. My true attitude is this: if there are no errors in the Bible, I praise God for giving us such perfect record of who He is and what He does! If there are errors in the Bible, I praise God for even making human mistakes work towards His all-consuming purpose of redemption, just like He does in our lives all the time! Either way, God is glorified, because we have a book from the Father, about the Son, given through the Holy Spirit for our sanctification. Amen!

(P.S. To any of you more learned readers out there, you may think my explanation of the Bible sounds really Barthian. While I do find Barth a very helpful influence with his language of witnesses and testimony, I am more conservative on Scripture than he is. My theory of inspiration is not actually Barthian, and honestly I still default to verbal, plenary inspiration.)

The Bible Is Not a House of Cards

A Different Kind of Calvinism: What About Free Will?

I left off in my last EC (Evangelical Calvinism) post explaining how we view election as about Jesus. He took our reprobation (rejection by God) on the Cross and gave us His election (being God’s Chosen One). So now humanity is the elect in Jesus Christ, the Elect.

This brings in an obvious question. If all humanity is chosen by God in Jesus, then does this mean all humanity will be saved? If not, then how do some people benefit from the salvation God gives to His elect, while others are still lost? What roles do choice and sovereignty play in salvation?

Love as True Freedom

In classical Arminianism, Molinism, and Open Theism, freedom (specifically libertarian free will) is the basis of true love. Love is not true unless it is chosen freely. Yet EC sees this in a reverse way, with God’s infinite life of Triune love as the basis for freedom. Traditional free will requires an equal capacity for good or evil, for love or hate. Yet this is not the freedom we see in God. God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. It is impossible for God to lie. The Father is not equally disposed to love or hate the Son, but simply loves the Son. Yet God is truly free in His love. It is by loving that God is free. Love creates true freedom to be and act for the other.

True freedom is found in love, which is found in God.

This is visible enough in Scripture and common experience. It is not those who are in sin who are free, but they are slaves of sin. Those who love God, and who love others, are free. It is the truth that sets us free, and what truth is there but Jesus, the Truth, who is also the God of love? It is the Son who sets us free indeed, and the Son is the God who is love.

Again, one common experience, we do not find ourselves free when we have the capacity to love or hate by arbitrary choice. Instead, we find ourselves bound by all kinds of selfish thoughts and desires, while love sets us free to live for our beloved. All of this points us to this conclusion: true freedom is found in love, which is found in God. Any metaphysical concept of “free will” based on individual choices and autonomy is inferior to this reality.

Jesus vs. Sin

Now, this freedom is something help first and foremost by God Himself, as He lives and loves within the Trinity as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Because Jesus is God the Son, He enjoys and exercises this seem freedom. And because humans are made in the image of God, who is Jesus, we can also experience the freedom of love.

Our human freedom from Christ is completely blocked by slavery to sin.

The problem comes with sin. Because of sin, we as humans are not fully participating in the freedom of the image of God. Sin’s origins are unknown. Scripture tells us nothing about how evil entered this world. We know that Satan fell, but we do not know how or why such terrible thoughts and desires came into his heart. Ultimately, this is a mystery known only to God Himself. But now that sin does exist, it has through Adam come to corrupt us all. While because we are made in Jesus’ image we should all live free lives of love, sin works within us to counteract and destroy our connection to Jesus. We have no way of escape, for all our thoughts are bent away from the freedom of love and into the slavery of selfishness. All together are under this, so that no one does good and no one seeks God. We are totally depraved.

So in our individual human wills, we have two competing powers. Our connection to God’s freedom of love though being made in Jesus’ image leads us to life and righteousness, while sin’s corruption leads us to death and wrongdoing. Our human freedom from Christ, however, is completely blocked by slavery to sin. As it is, we have all gone too far astray on sin’s path and are left with no way out, only occasionally and incidentally doing anything in true freedom.

Set Free Once More

How is this contradiction between the image we were created in, Jesus and His life of love/freedom, and the sin which corrupts us to be fixed? Only God’s in His grace can even keep us around in this state. So what is God’s solution?

The Holy Spirit makes us alive with Jesus’ life, free with Jesus’ freedom.

The answer is Jesus, yet again. Though we lived a whole life of slavery to sin, Jesus also lived a human life. He was born into the sinful human race and just like us, only in His life He did not succumb to sin but instead healed it. He in His own human person eliminated the power of sin and lived the freedom of love. This is the basis on which we can now be freed. Jesus did all things right, He believed in the Father, He turned away from sin, He resisted temptation, He did good works, and He was perfect, all as a human being.

This is the basis for our salvation. As I said before, we are made in the image of God, who is Jesus. So if Jesus lived this life as a human, we should be able to as well. He had made the human life of salvation that we need. Because He did all this, He has not only created a basis for humanity to begin with, the image we were created in yet broke, but He has also created the basis for us to turn from our sins and come to God.

How do we get in on this as individuals? The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, does this for us. He comes to us in power when we encounter the Gospel, and so brings us to life by reuniting us with Jesus Himself, and the free life He lived. So we are freed and joined to Jesus’ own turning from sin that we can turn from sin, connected to Jesus’ faith so that we can have faith. The Holy Spirit makes us alive with Jesus’ life, free with Jesus’ freedom.

Unbelievers refuse the very Spirit of the very Jesus whose image they are made in and deny their own existence.

“Okay,” you’ll say. “But if the Holy Spirit makes us who believe share in Jesus’ faith, what about those who do not believe? Does He not do that for them?” This is a good question. The TC (TULIP Calvinist) doctrine of irresistible grace also makes faith the product of the Spirit, but God only does this in the elect. Of course, in EC all of humanity is elect, but some do not believe, so how does this work? Surely God does not withhold the Spirit from people when He could save them?

This is where we get back to the same question of sin’s origins. Where did sin come from? No one knows. How did sin enter a world perfectly in line with God’s will? Scripture doesn’t say. Likewise, while it should be impossible because of the perfect work of Jesus and the relationship the Spirit creates with Him for anyone to remain unchanged, somehow some people do. Unbelievers refuse the very Spirit of the very Jesus whose image they are made in and deny their own existence. They do the impossible, resist the Spirit of the God who reconciles all things to Himself through the body of Jesus Christ. Bobby Grow calls it a surd, a fact of reality that doesn’t fit in to our understanding of reality. Unbelief doesn’t make sense.

A Wee Bit More

Honestly, I expect there are still questions, and I do intend to address them. In my next post, part 5 of the EC series, I plan to cover more details on two crucial points: the sovereignty of God in relation to man’s will, and the importance of a doctrine called the vicarious humanity of Christ to understanding. I believe I will conclude with that, though I will certainly have various posts in the future on these subjects, just not in this series.

If you have any questions you can actually figure out how to ask (I know at first I didn’t really know what to say about all this), be sure to mention them in the comments so I can address them in my next post. I may do a FAQ post at the end of the series for any miscellaneous things. Until then, the grace of Jesus and the Father be with you all.

A Different Kind of Calvinism: What About Free Will?

Francis Chan: Is Your Church Like Elijah or Baal’s Prophets?

I was just reading last night Francis Chan’s book Forgotten God. At one point he comments on the ease of doing church in our own strength to draw a crowd as opposed to a truly Spirit-filled gathering of believers. He questions how many of our churches are actually like the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 instead of like Elijah, a prophet of the true God? Here’s what he says:

Sometimes I leave Christian events wondering if we resemble the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 more than Elijah, the prophet of God. If you’ve forgotten the story, it may be good to stop here and read that chapter, or else the rest of what I write in this section will make very little sense to you. The prophets of Baal had a loud, passionate worship gathering that lasted from morning till evening. When they were done, they had a great time of fellowship (I think you can call it that). But “no one answered; no one paid attention.” (18:29). After all of that, Elijah prayed. God heard his prayer, and fire came down from heaven.

My favorite part of that story comes when it is all over and the prophets of Baal are saying, “The LORD—he is God! The LORD—he is God!” (18:39 NIV). They didn’t say, “Elijah is a great speaker” or “Elijah sure knows how to connect with God!” They were stunned by God. They were in awe of His power. They knew that what they experienced could not have been manipulated by Elijah. They experienced the power of God.

Is that what happens at the Christian gatherings you attend? Or does it feel more like what the prophets of Baal experienced before Elijah prayed? We can have a great time singing and dancing ourselves into a frenzy. But at the end of it, fire doesn’t come down from heaven. People leave talking about the people who led rather than the power of God.

Francis Chan, Forgotten God, Chapter 7 “Supernatural Church”

What do you think? Is the way our churches work basically a Jesus-themed concert of excitability, caused all by human energy, or a demonstration of the Spirit and of power? Do you have a concert or worship, a speech or a prophecy?

Francis Chan: Is Your Church Like Elijah or Baal’s Prophets?

Pray This after Me: Is the Sinner’s Prayer Biblical?

If you’ve ever been to an Evangelical church, you’ve probably heard something along these lines:

If you want to get saved, if you want to accept Jesus as your Savior tonight, I want you to bow your heads, close your eyes, and repeat after me: 

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name, Amen.

If you prayed that prayer and meant it with all your heart, now you’re saved.

Such an invitation is so common that many people would not even give it a second thought. However, there are potential problems with this approach. First, let’s consider a question: what exactly is going on here?

Continue reading “Pray This after Me: Is the Sinner’s Prayer Biblical?”

Pray This after Me: Is the Sinner’s Prayer Biblical?