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The Trinity and Love

"There will be no loyalty, except loyalty to the Party. There will be no love, except love of Big Brother." — Winston, 1984

  • Greg Uttinger,
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"There will be no loyalty, except loyalty to the Party. There will be no love, except love of Big Brother." — Winston, 1984 "We are Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile."— 3 of 5, ST:TNG

As a test question, I asked my high school class, "Why do we say that love is eternal?" We had just finished a study of theology proper in the context of Christian ethics, so I thought the question a fair one, even though I hadn't asked it in that form before. Only one student, a senior, came up with the correct answer. The others said either, "Because God is love," or, "Because God loved us from eternity." Both of those answers are right as far as they go, of course. The problem is that they don't go nearly far enough. If we rest content with them, we will seriously misunderstand God, love, and ourselves. But let me begin at the beginning before the beginning, actually.

In Titus 1:2, Paul tells us that God promised eternal life "before the world began." This is one of many Scriptures that speak of relationships within the Trinity. Before there was anyone else, the Persons of the Godhead made promises to one another. The Gospel of John contains more than its share of such scriptures. Here are a few:

1:18 The Son is in the bosom of the Father.
3:16 God gave His only begotten Son.
3:17 God sent His Son into the world.
5:20 The Father loves the Son and shows Him all that He does.
10:15 The Son knows the Father as the Father knows the Son.
14:16 The Son prays to the Father, and the Father (in response) gives the Holy Spirit.
14:26 The Father will send the Holy Spirit in the Son's name.
14:31 The Son loves the Father and does His commandments.
15:26 The Son will send the Holy Spirit from the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father; the Spirit will testify of the Son.
16:7 The Son will send the Holy Spirit.
16:13 The Holy Spirit will not speak of [from] Himself.
16:14 The Holy Spirit will glorify the Son.
16:15 All that is the Father's is also the Son's.
17:1 The Father glorifies the Son, so that the Son can glorify the Father.
17:2 The Father has given the Son a people and the power and responsibility to give them eternal life.
17:4 The Son glorified the Father by finishing the work He gave Him to do.
17:24 The Father loved the Son before the foundation of the world.
17:26 The Son has loved the Father.

In interpreting a number of these passages, we must take into account Jesus' true human nature as well as the difficulty of explaining eternity in terms of time. Nonetheless, certain truths emerge from these texts.

Distinct Personhood
First, the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct persons, capable of loving and communicating with one another. The Father loves the Son and gives Him commandments. The Son loves the Father, makes requests of Him, and obeys Him. The Father and Son both send the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes to glorify the Son and to testify to Him. We must leave no room for Sabellianism, that ancient heresy that makes "Father," "Son," and "Spirit" nothing more than titles that one person may in succession assume, or phases through which one person may, in succession, pass.

Second, the Father, Son, and Spirit love one another. We are expressly told of the love relationship between the Father and the Son. But what of the Spirit? Augustine argued that, of the Three, the Holy Spirit is preeminently to be called Love. For He is the Spirit of both the Father and the Son, and as such He is the divine Bond between the two.1 He is the living Breath, exhaled from Father to Son and from Son to Father. He is the Love that is of God and is God (1 Jn. 4:7-16).2 Given this, we don't have to wonder that He doesn't remind us of His own love for the other two Persons.

Third, from eternity and in time each Person of the Trinity acts to glorify the others. The Father committed power and responsibility to the Son. He made Him the central, visible Actor in the drama of earth's redemption, and upon the completion of His work on earth, He exalted Him to His own right hand (Eph. 1:20-23; Phil. 2:5-11; Ac. 2:33ff.). The Son wholly submitted Himself to the Father and took on His work. The Holy Spirit waited upon the Son's finished obedience (cf. Jn. 7:39), submitted Himself to the Father and the Son, and came, not to speak of or about Himself, but to testify of the Son.

Fourth, each Person of the Trinity glorifies the other two at a cost to Himself. The Son humbled Himself to death on the cross. There, having become "sin for us" (2 Cor. 5:21), He suffered isolation from His Father and bore the wrath of God against sinners (Mt. 27:46; Ps. 22:1-21; Is. 53:5, 10-12).3 The Father gave up His beloved Son to death on the cross (Jn. 3:16). The Holy Spirit, too, gave up the Son as He withdrew His comforts from the crucified Christ.4 Remember the two-fold cry: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" There are mysteries here, for God's passions are not the passions of men. But we will err into Stoicism if we do not confess that God felt grief in His heart when Jesus was made sin in our place (cf. Gen. 6:5-7; Isa. 63:10; Eph. 4:30).

Fifth, the love within the Trinity is the ground of God's love for us. That love is first foundational, and archetypal. He loves us because They first of all love one another. His love is full and overflows. He does not need, yet He gives. He rejoices in the fulness of His love and reaches beyond Himself to share it with creatures who can profit Him nothing.

Sixth, divine love did not remain a matter of good intentions or hypothetical possibilities. The Persons of the Trinity did not merely tell stories to one another about what could be.5 God acted into history. Divine love overflowed beyond the heart of God into the acts of God, and God created a world outside Himself in which that love could be manifest.

Seventh, love functions in terms of truth. The Persons of the Godhead communicated their intentions and promises in a clear and faithful manner, and what each covenanted in eternity is precisely what He did on earth and in history. Jesus could speak in normal, propositional language about the Father's love and the Father's promises (Jn. 17). Written covenants, confessions, and creeds are the necessary corollary of Biblical love.

Eighth, love is not an abstraction. In the love of the Trinity we have a living model of love and virtue at work. Within the Trinity each Person moves in love to seek the good of the other two. Each communicates honestly and openly with the others. Each operates with complete confidence (trust) in the others, and each is Himself absolutely faithful. Each humbles Himself, giving of Himself even to the point of grief and loss, so that the others may be glorified. Each rejoices and delights in the others (cf. Pr. 8:30; Mt. 3:17). The love of God and the glory of God are thus inextricably interwoven in God Himself.

Consider a practical application in connection with this last thought. What happens, say, if we cling to the idea of self-sacrifice, but forget its end, the love of God and our neighbor? Giving up something replaces giving of self, and unselfishness takes the place of charity. C. S. Lewis gives us this example:

Something quite trivial, like having tea in the garden, is proposed. One member takes care to make it quite clear (though not in so many words) that he would rather not but is, of course, prepared to do so out of "Unselfishness." The others instantly withdraw their proposal, ostensibly through their "Unselfishness," but really because they don't want to be used as a sort of lay figure on which the first speaker practices petty altruism. But he is not going to be done out of his debauch of Unselfishness either. He insists on doing "what the others want." They insist on doing what he wants. Passions are roused. Soon someone is saying, "Very well, then, I won't have any tea at all!" and a real quarrel ensues with bitter resentment on both sides.6

Let's return to the test question and the common answers.

If we say simply that God is love, and leave it at that, we leave love without an object. Love is no more than a state of mind or heart. It is theoretical or sentimental. It neither speaks nor gives. It is a "love" that gets along very well without ever loving anyone or anything. As Linus yells at Lucy, "I love mankind . . . It's people I can't stand!"

What if we say that God's love is potential? He is ready and willing to love; He only lacks an object for His love. This brings us to that second response, "God loves us eternally."

While it is certainly true that God loves His people from eternity, this doctrine still does not untie the knot. Did God's love wait on us before it could be complete? See what happens. God is love. He must be love to be God. By our existence, then, we enable God to love and so enable God to be God. We bestow upon God His divinity by letting Him love us and by loving Him in return. God needs us in order to be truly God. This is not Christianity, though it has sometime passed for it, particularly in the nineteenth century.

Practical Arians
The bottom line is this: if we are content to root love anywhere but in the eternal fellowship of the Trinity, we will be functioning as practical Arians. The implications of such Unitarian theology are profound and practical. The Arian god is lonely at best, impersonal at worst. If "it" has placed us here, it is because "it" needs us to complete itself. Imagine the human family shaped in the image of such a god! Or better, read the political history of Unitarianism in this country.7 It is no wonder that so many Caesars favored Arian theology.8 But such theology has its more homely implications as well. Lewis again is helpful:

Even in human life we have seen the passion to dominate, almost to digest, one's fellow; to make his whole intellectual and emotional life merely an extension of one's own — to hate one's hatreds and resent one's grievances and indulge one's egoism through him as well as through oneself. His own little store of passion must of course be suppressed to make room for ours. If he resists this suppression he is being very selfish.9

We are loved. We are needed. We will be embraced, included, assimilated. Resistance is futile. Whether the threat comes from a would-be "friend" who knows what's best for us or from some Orwellian collective, we should not be impressed that it masquerades behind the banner of love. But we should recognize it for the Unitarian slavery that it is.

The Biblical metaphor for love in action, for covenantal community, is neither the hive nor the machine. It is the body (1 Cor.12):10

There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men ... And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love (Eph. 4:4-8, 11-16).

The love and community of the Triune God is modeled, revealed, and best of all enjoyed in the fellowship and worship of the believing and loving church. This is our greatest privilege and our greatest apology.11 The world will know our Lord and us by our love. And so Jesus prayed:

That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me (Jn. 17:21-23).


1. St. Augustine, On the Trinity, XV: xix.

2. Ibid., XV: viii.

3. It is true that Jesus suffered in His human nature; it is also true that He suffered as a divine Person.

4. See Klaas Schilder, Christ Crucified (St. Catherines, Canada, 1940 [1979]), 402-403.

5. On the other hand, storytelling also has its origins in the eternal communications of the Godhead. But that's a discussion for another time.

6. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York, revised 1982 ed.), 123.

7. See, for example, Otto Scott, The Secret Six, John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement (New York, 1979); see also "The Religion of Humanity" in R. J. Rushdoony's The Nature of the American System (Nutley, NJ, 1965).

8. See R. J. Rushdoony, The Foundations of Social Order: Studiesin the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church (n. p., 1972).

9. Preface to The Screwtape Letters, xi.

10. C. S. Lewis, "Membership" in The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York, 1980).

11. Francis Schaeffer, "The Mark of the Christian" in The Church at the End of the 20th Century (Downers Grove, IL, 1970).

  • Greg Uttinger

Greg Uttinger teaches theology, history, and literature at Cornerstone Christian School in Roseville, California. He lives nearby in Sacramento County with his wife, Kate, and their three children.

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