Perhaps one of the most important and powerful truths that Christianity has given to the world is the simple statement from Saint John, “God is Love.” It is a declaration that resonates with both Christians and Non-Christians alike, believers and skeptics. I once had a conversation about faith with a very kind a gracious woman who described herself as an agnostic. “I’m not sure there is a God” she said, “but I suppose I do believe in something greater than all of us that unites us, a higher power.” I pressed her further, “And what do you believe that higher power is?” She didn’t have to think long before answering, “Love. Love is the greatest and most beautiful thing that I can imagine. Love is my religion. I think if there really is a God he must be pure Love.” Although she is not a believer, she is not far from the Kingdom of Heaven, for as Saint John reminds us, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”
Sometimes this simple religion of Love is contrasted with the complicated and obscure religion of dogma, and yet Saint John’s statement is not mere sentiment but the fruit of a profound theology. How did John come to his realization that God is love? The foundation of this conviction is his belief in the divinity of Christ. Not one verse before he tells us, “If anyone confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (4:15). As a result, “we have come to know and believe the love that God has for us” (4:16a). We can have confidence in God’s love for us because God’s very nature is love as revealed in Jesus Christ. From all eternity, before time and creation itself, God was pure, perfect, unconditional, unwavering, love. If this is true, we must confess the doctrine of the Trinity.
To some of you that might seem like a stretch, but hear me out. It is one thing to say that God loves us or that he loves the world, but it is something very different indeed to say that God—in his very nature and from all eternity—is Love. Love is a relational concept, it never exists except between persons. It simply wouldn’t make sense to say that God is love if he was just a lonely monad with no one to talk to or no one to love. God didn’t create the world out of loneliness or necessity. He had all the love and fellowship he needed already in his own nature, before he created anything. Before creation, before time, God was already a perfect community of persons in perfect unity. He was Trinity.
In saying this we do not mean to imply that there is a committee or tribunal of three separate Gods. The word of God is clear in its insistence that there is one and only one God. Deuteronomy 6:4 tells us, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” We confess three persons, but one God. There is no contradiction here because we are not referring to the same thing when we say that God is three as we are when we say that God is one.
Bishop Kenneth Myers—attempting to put the sometimes obscure, philosophical terminology of Trinitarian theology in more accessible terms—has said that God is one “what” but he is three “whos.” In other words, when we ask, “what is God?” We answer, “God is the almighty, uncreated, source, and personal creator of all things visible and invisible,” but when we ask, “Who is God?” We answer, “God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” God is one God, but included in that one God are three persons that exist in a relationship of mutual love.
But why three? Why not just two? You have heard the saying, “Two is company, but three is a crowd” haven’t you? Understanding the mutual love of the first and second persons of the Trinity is fairly easy for us to conceptualize. The image of Father and Son is concrete and deeply personal, but the Holy Spirit seems to be the odd man out. It doesn’t help that our images of the Spirit are so abstract: wind, fire, and a dove. The Trinity is often spoken of in terms of the lover, the beloved, and the act of loving itself. Here again the Holy Spirit seems impersonal.
I find the work of a 12th century theologian named Richard of Saint Victor to be helpful on this point. He argued that in order for love to be perfect there must not only be a lover and a beloved but also a co-beloved. Have you ever observed a relationship—a friendship, a romance, or familial bond—that seemed unhealthily insular? One person’s devotion to another can sometimes be so intense that it is as if nothing else in the world exists. When one person relies on another exclusively for approval or identity we call that co-dependence. It is dysfunctional and anti-social and in the end is little different from selfishness.
This is especially true when it comes to romantic relationships. Whenever I council couples preparing for marriage, I tell them that if they rely exclusively on their partner to “complete them,” they will smother each other. I am convinced that even if a couple never has children, in order for their relationship to really flourish they need to focus their love not only on one another but on family, mutual friends, and supremely on God. This is what Richard St. Victor means when he says that love is perfected in a co-beloved.
The Holy Spirit is not only the embodiment of the love of the Father and Son for one another, but he is also that love turned beyond themselves. The love of God is so perfect that it demands to be shared, it over flows in creation. The Trinity is always seeking to include others in the circle of his love.
The doctrine of the Trinity has enormously practical implications. Those who want a non-Trinitarian God, whether they realize it or not, enshrine selfishness and tyranny as the highest virtues! If God is a solitary, all-powerful monarch, fixated on his own glory, than in order to be like God we would need to aspire to those same characteristics. Godliness would be about being powerful and having things our own way.
But If God is love, If God is himself a kind of family or society, devoted to glorifying each other--if God is Trinity--we need to love one another! When we realize that God is Trinity we see that togetherness, cooperation, and even sacrifice are grounded in the very nature of God.
When we realize God is Trinity we see also that there is room for diversity in unity. We don’t all have to be the same, but we can be unified despite our differences.
If God is love that reaches out to include others, we as his church should do the same. The Father sent the Son, and together they send the spirit, in order that we too can be a part of sharing the love of God with the entire world.