Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. he who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 1 John 4:7-8 (NKJV)
The prominent Roman Catholic theologian, Hans urs von Balthasar, was once asked why there was a need to believe in the Trinity. His answer was simple: “It is thanks to the Trinity that we can know that God is love.” But how does the Trinity allow us to know that? I think that 1 John 4:8 suggests an answer.
Our God is quite unlike the gods of the nations. Other religious traditions conceive of their gods as remote, distant, and uncaring, somewhat akin to an “unblinking cosmic stare” or “metaphysical iceberg.” Such gods may be powerful (after a fashion), but they also tend to be utterly removed from human concerns, passions, or feelings. Love is beneath them. They are untouched by it. Such gods crave power and worship. But while they may be fearfully revered, loathed, or meekly submitted to by their devotees, they cannot be loved.
But this is not true of the God of Israel, who sent His Son to die for the sins of the world. Israel’s God, the God proclaimed in the gospel, is supremely characterized by love. But to say, as John does, that love is of God and that God is love, is not simply to describe God’s actions. No, love does not simply describe what God does, but what He is. God is love. Love is His very being. That God is love in Himself is revealed to us by the Holy Trinity.
In the Godhead, there are three divine Persons, but one divine being or substance, such that, God’s very existence is personal communion. The Father eternally begets the Son (John 3:16), and the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son (John 15:26; 20:22). Not unlike a family, God exists as an eternal interplay of love between the three Divine Persons.
This revelation gives Christians an altogether different understanding of God’s purpose for creation and salvation. The Trinity reveals to us that God did not create the world because He needed something to love, as if, apart from creation, He was somehow incomplete (as process theologians would say). On the contrary, the world was not created out of God’s need, but out of His abundance, as a dynamic and fertile outpouring of Trinitarian love. The Biblical God populated the world with creatures created in His image precisely so that they (we) might also live in His likeness, that is, live by responding to, and sharing in, God’s boundless Trinitarian love. Hence, whereas other religions have as their “pillars” impersonal, submissive acts, in Christianity the two greatest commandments that God proclaims are really aspects of a single imperative: to love. Even that command takes a Trinitarian form, for we are called to love God, and our neighbor, just as we love ourselves (Matt 22:37-40).
Although the Trinity is sometimes considered an incomprehensible doctrine better left out of the pulpit, I think the opposite is true. In a world where marriages, families, and other social ties are increasingly coming apart, where people seem incapable of forming lasting bonds of love, and where popular culture leaves us without living examples of what loving relationships should look like, the doctrine of the Trinity is like balm to the soul. In the light of everlasting Trinitarian love, we can discern our own purpose, namely, to live in shalom with others, as receptacles of God’s love.
Originally published in the January/February 2013 edition of Grace in Focus