Who is God? And what is he like?
A primary answer to this question is that God exists in communion. That is, the bedrock reality of God is his triune existence: he is One who exists eternally as the Father, Son, and Spirit. The Father is distinctly and only the Father; the Son is distinctly and only the Son; and the Spirit is the distinct and only communicator between the Father and the Son. The Father exists only as he has the Son; and vice versa. And the relational bond of God—his communion—is his basis of being.
Let me restate the point with a slight variation: no other true or reliable expression of God, description of the divine, or foundation for life exists apart from the reality of an eternal, communing, triune One.
This certainty is what makes Christianity unique and uniquely true. It is the point where we, as followers of Christ, bring life and light into a world blinded by the Fall. Call it a confessional statement or a creedal commitment if you like, but the truth is more than a sterile or abstract assertion; more than a mere proposition. Instead it is the basis of life. We derive our relational bonding as humans from our creation by the relationally bonded Godhead. He exists in love; as love. We were birthed out of that love and are made to love both him and each other.
The reason for my regularly returning to the theme of God’s triune communion is that I find most Christians to be either blind to it—and therefore sub-Christian in their faith—or at least wary of it because it doesn’t seem to have much basis either in our day-to-day experience or in our training in the church.
By that I mean that we tend in our day-to-day life to think numerically, as in “one and three are separate numbers”. So God is either a “one” or a “three”. The tendency, then, is to think of God the Father as the “real” God—the true “One”—with the Son and the Spirit as his aids, extensions, or add-ons—and sometimes, his “form for the day”: what has been called monarchianism, modalism, or monarchial modalism. I find this informal solution to the numerical challenge of God’s being to be common as I listen to Christians talk about “God” as an exclusive and singular source of power and rule: as in, “I know that only God can help.”
The problem I want to raise here is that the church is all too slow to feel the weight of the problem of a monadic God. In my own experience of training in an evangelical Portland-area Bible college, and later in a Chicago-area divinity school, I was taught to affirm God as a “Trinity” but then we spent almost all our time chasing God’s attributes as if he was a monadic figure who consists in mostly non-relational qualities: in his “omni’s” and in his aseity, his impassibility, his immutability, and so on.
This version of God is, again, monadic in the sense that Aristotle could (and did) say almost exactly what we were saying about God, even though Aristotle was not a Trinitarian believer but a worshiper of a God who exists as the ultimate cause—the great Singularity who moves all else but who is, himself, immovable.
As I eventually came to teach what I had been taught at the same Portland-area Bible college of my undergraduate studies, I began to feel uncomfortable with that content. Why? Because in my continuing cycles of Bible reading I was often finding the God in the Scriptures to be very different in presence and personality to the God of my training. So I quit teaching in order to pursue a doctorate with that question in view: why this difference?
What I discovered in my study of Richard Sibbes and his predecessors—and, to my surprise, also in a cluster of 20th century figures known as “Trinitarian theologians” who had gathered at King’s College London where I studied—was a more biblical and relational basis for God’s being.
First let me say that a Trinitarian theologian differs from a Christian who simply says “Of course I believe in the Trinity” (as something required of all orthodox Christians) and then goes on to restate views taken both directly and indirectly from either Aristotle or Plato or both. The latter—classical theists—are satisfied to finally mention the Trinity as a subordinate topic well down the line from God’s “more important” issues, i.e. his set of attributes. Yet their conception of God is never dynamically defined by the Trinity. The Trinitarians, on the other hand, take the Trinity to be the sole starting point for theology. They would say that nothing can be said about God that is true unless it begins with his relational Triunity.
Let me add a caveat that there are any number of Trinitarian theologians in print today whose works I can cheer at many points but who make some claims that I have yet to see supported in the Bible! So I would invite every follower of Christ to be like the Bereans (see Acts 17:11) in comparing theological claims made by teachers with what the Scriptures offer.
Back to my concern: what I find striking is that our current issues were also present early in church history. In reading the 4th century Father, Gregory of Nyssa, for instance (one of the three Cappadocians noted for their role in the Nicene discussions of Christ’s deity) I found discussions about how God exists.
They [Gregory’s non-Christian foes] charge us with preaching three Gods, and din into the ears of the multitude this slander, which they never rest from maintaining persuasively. [NPNF 5:326]
What did Gregory then offer as a non-tritheistic response? One answer was to defend God’s triune relationship in writing. His concern in On the Holy Trinity was to insist that the Spirit exists in “community with the Father in the Son” not only in his attributes but also in his place in the Godhead [NPNF 5:327]. Gregory held that it is only in a relational God that we have a transforming relationship from him, with him, and towards each other: “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit alike give sanctification, and life, and light, and comfort, and all similar graces” [5:328].
Let me extend his point by arguing that without a God who exists eternally in community, as a communion rooted in distinctions, and as expressed through communication, we have no basis for love or full self-understanding. Then without love we become tragic and selfish points of dissolving insignificance. With love-from-God, on the other hand, we are bonded into the fabric of God’s communion.
To elaborate what I noted earlier: love exists between persons, not as a singular capacity or individual-based attribute. There must be at least a lover and a beloved for love to exist. God, then, “is love” and we are created because of that love and for that love to be extended to us and through us to each other—see 1 John 4 here.
We now need to return to the question we started with: what is God like? The answer is that he is a relational being whose communion of love constitutes his intrinsic community and explains all of his communication. Any considerations of God must start here if we hope to make headway. And in the Son we find the clearest expression and invitation to the opportunity to know God as he really exists. He is the Father’s beloved, so that in our union with him through our saving faith we become beloved as well.
The invitation stands before us, then, to know Christ and to make him known as one who loves us with an overflowing triune love. May we pursue it and enjoy it!