Are You a Functional Tri-Theist?

Today, during the class break of Systematic Theology One, I had a short conversation with a fellow seminary student about the doctrine of Inseparable operations. The main idea this teaching conveys is that in every action God does in the world, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit act inseparably, and indivisibly.

As I thought about this specific teaching, many things came to mind. The first being that almost entirely, I cannot recall a sermon about the Trinity I ever listened to from a pulpit in the churches I have been a part of back in Uganda. I said, almost.

It happens to be that there is practically far less conversation about the Triune nature of God, which is so odd since this is what fundamentally distinguishes Christianity from monotheistic religions that conceive God as a monad, religions such as Islam and Judaism.

And what was even perplexing to me is the fact that in Africa we still value community and relationships over individualism. It would thus be easy, I thought, to consciously and routinely rejoice and talk about this relational God who is a Unity in Trinity. And yet, we rarely do. Then when we talk about the Trinity, we rush to one of the Persons of the Trinity, without emphasizing the unity and relationality of God, so much so that we are guilty of what Dr. Vidu calls functional Tri-theism. What this means is that though we say we believe in One God in Three Persons, we talk, pray and preach about God as though the three Trinitarian Persons are different beings altogether. We even prefer one of the Persons to the other two!

We are in practice functional Tri-theists.

The Trinitarian Teaching

The Christian Teaching is that God is One Substance/Nature, and Three Persons. When we say God is One, we refer to His Nature, not Person. When we say God is Three, we denote Persons, not Nature. God has revealed Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt 3:13-17, 28:19, 1 Cor 13:14).

The Father is truly God (John 17:3), the Son is truly God (John 1:1), and the Holy Spirit is truly God (Acts 5:3-4). And yet the Bible emphasizes that God is One (Deut 6:4). The Father is not the Son, neither is He the Spirit. The Son is neither the Father nor the Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. We know this by observing the relationships between the Three. The Father sends the Son (John 3:16), the Son is sent by the Father, and both the Father and the Son send the Spirit (John 14:15-18, 16:7).

This teaching is the bedrock of Christianity, without which our preaching is invalid. To preach is to call men to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no other way.

Some Functional Tri-theistic Theological Thought Patterns

And yet, we pay no heed to this mystery of salvation. As mentioned before, most of us (me inclusive) are functional tri-theists. I will give some examples.

Take this example. Almost all of us have heard the dispensationalist teaching which goes like this: the Father revealed Himself to us in the Old Testament, the Son in the New, and now this is the dispensation of the Holy Spirit. In fact, as some will say, ‘the God of the Old Testament was rough and angry, but Jesus is so loving.’

What this teaching does merely is split up God into three beings, and I suppose unintendedly. We think that the God who rules over Israel and delivers them from Pharoah and appears to Moses in the bush, that God, is the Father. And then, we think of Jesus coming down the ladder from heaven to be born of the virgin about 2000 years ago. And then when He dies and rises again, He, hypothetically speaking, waves goodbye to us and in effect tells the Holy Spirit, ‘Your turn now.’

But this is deeply flawed. And this reveals the danger of dividing up the persons in our conception of God. We must never view the Trinity as three beings. As we read in the New Testament (John 1:1-14, Col 1:15-20, Heb 1:1-3), we get to see that the Father does nothing without the Son, whether it is creation or recreation. To posit the Father as being active in the Old Testament while the Son (and Spirit) are sort of on vacation is poor biblical hermeneutics and interpretation.

Another example that reveals our functional tri-theism is our understanding of Pentecost. Most of us do not think that Jesus was here on earth on Pentecost, even after He ascended. And this view is reinforced when we read that Christ is ‘seated at the right hand of Majesty.’

So, we think that at Pentecost, the Spirit alone is showing up, demonstrating His power, while perhaps the Father and Son are watching.

But again, we need to remember that the purpose of Christ’s ascension was so that He can ‘fill all things’ (Eph 4:10). We also do well to recall that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of both the Father and of the Son. So that, wherever the Spirit of God is, there God is in His fullness, undivided, inseparable. On Pentecost, the Father and Son are equally and inseparably working with the Holy Spirit.

The third example of how we tend to separate God in our conception and teaching is how we often think that only the Holy Spirit indwells believers. And yet, (as I had mentioned earlier), eternal life consists in the knowledge of God as Triune (John 17:1-3). Christ tells us that those whose love of and for God is revealed through a God-centered life are indwelt by the whole Trinity (John 14:23). In this way, it is apparently impossible for those who believe to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit and not equally by the Father and the Son.

Because God is indivisible, a believer cannot have one of the Persons of the Godhead without the other. The Simplicity and indivisibility of God mean that He inseparably operates in the universe, and in us, in a consistently trinitarian way.

What Does This Mean For Us?

I cannot answer this question comprehensively for you. I guess it is a meditational and soul-searching question for each one of us. What does it mean for me? How does this affect my prayer life for example?

But one fundamental impact of this awareness is the need for us to stop depersonalizing the Holy Spirit. We often think of Him as a force we channel to accomplish tasks for us, rather than a Person of the Godhead, who together with the Father and the Son indwells us for communion with the Trinity.

It also means that when we speak of and to the Father (in heaven), we should not conceive Him as one separated from us by some unfathomable distance. Heaven is not spatially demarcated but is wherever God is, entirely, in His goodness. And God has made His home in every believer, so that prayer is communion and communication with the God who is with us.

Thirdly, we should know that salvation is life in the Trinity. God has extended His garment of eternal fellowship to include feeble mankind. He is in Christ Jesus reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor 5:17-21) and inviting us to fellowship with the Trinity.

The fourth and last is that we must take the communal aspect of salvation as importantly as we consider our individual walk with God. We are members of Christ, and of the global church. That is why we are warned never to give up the habit of meeting as brethren, in bible studies, on Sunday and so forth. In this journey of salvation, to walk alone is to walk to hell. Those who are in Him must be in community. You are not alone, and neither should you love being alone. Our God is Three in One, in the fellowship of like-Persons, and we too must individually walk in the fellowship of like-persons, namely,  believers.

May we not be functional tri-theists in thought, talk, and walk.

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