The Good News of God
There is something even better than the good news, and that something is God. The good news of the gospel is that God has opened up the dynamics of his triune life and given us a share in that fellowship. But all of that good news only makes sense against the background of something even better than the good news: the goodness that is the perfection of God himself. The doctrine of the Trinity is first and foremost a teaching about who God is, and God the Trinity would have been God the Trinity whether he had revealed himself to us or not, whether he had redeemed us or not, whether he had created us or not.
Obviously, these “whether or not” statements are counterfactual: they are about situations that are not the case. God has in fact made himself known, has redeemed his people, and, to say the most obvious thing, has created us. That being the case, what is the good of asking hypothetical questions about what would have been the case if God had not done these things he has done? Indeed, isn’t it even ungrateful to forget, or to pretend to forget, God’s mighty acts?
No, in this case, far from being ungrateful, it is an opportunity to become more grateful. Hypothetical questions are useful tools for understanding how things really are by imagining how they might have been otherwise.1 They can be used as mental cures for sick patterns of thought.
Trinitarian before Time Began
If you are tempted to think that God’s triunity is something he puts on in order to reach some further goal, or to interact with the world, you can cure yourself of that tendency by thinking away the world and asking yourself: If there had been no world, would God have been Father, Son, and Spirit? If you are tempted to think of Christmas as the time when the Son of God first began to exist, you can cure yourself by asking: If the Son of God had not taken on human nature, would he still have been the Son of God?
The answer to these hypothetical questions is yes, God would have been Trinity with no world, and the Son of God did in fact preexist his incarnation. God minus the world is still God the Holy Trinity. In the words of the hymn by Frederick W. Faber:
When Heaven and Earth were yet unmade
When time was yet unknown,
Thou, in Thy bliss and majesty,
Didst live, and love, alone.2
The emphasis in these excellent lines is on God’s self-sufficient “bliss and majesty.” Faber would be quick to point out that the final word, “alone,” is very different from “lonely.” Otherwise God could not “love, alone.” Indeed, God is the only one who can love alone, for Trinitarian reasons: God the Father loves God the Son in the love of God the Holy Spirit.
The doctrine of the Trinity calls us to recognize, and ponder, and rejoice in the sheer reality of who God essentially is, at home in the happy land of the Trinity above all worlds. To recognize this is to come face-to-face with the final foundation of all God’s ways and works.
And when we have carried out the thought experiment of thinking away everything we can (both redemption and creation), leaving nothing but God, we are not left with a formless and solitary divine blur. Instead we confess that God exists essentially and eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christians have much to say about grace. But the ground of grace is God’s absolute triune self-sufficiency.
1.Have you ever stopped to ask, What if there were no hypothetical questions?
2. Hymns Ancient and Modern (New York: Pott and Amery, 1870), no. 154.
This post is adapted from The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything by Fred Sanders.