Current Issue

If you had the ability to paint anything in the world, why would you spend time portraying a dead chicken on a meat hook?

Many years ago, I spent time at a Chicago art museum with some friends who were infinitely more informed about art than I will ever be. While wandering the expansive galleries, I discovered several sculptures and paintings that really impressed me and captured my attention. They were beautiful!

Landscapes, still lifes, and images of giant structures inspired me to pull out my camera and take a few snapshots (without using the flash, of course). However, a disturbing trend emerged as we continued our artistic odyssey: we encountered paintings that defied all attempts at explanation.

I stared not only at a dead chicken but at a whole host of disturbingly graphic images that appeared to have no connection to each other save for having lunatics as their artists. But these images weren’t the only ones that mystified me. Some pieces were sculptures that I could only describe as long or pointy or swirly. There were also paintings in which I could see the picture but the artists’ techniques completely bewildered me.

As I moved closer to one painting of people parading through a park, I saw that its entire composition was made up of dots of differing sizes and colors. How anyone could put together a beautiful picture with tinted polka dots was beyond me, and yet there it was.

One or Three?

In Christianity, there is also a picture of God that is difficult to make sense of. Religious scholars have fought about it and labeled each other as heretics in the process of trying to unravel its composition and how it works.

The picture begins with something called the Shema, a morning and evening prayer in Judaism. It’s a declaration: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). This verse affirms that the God in the Bible is not many gods but one God. Both Jews and Christians are monotheistic, but as we look closer at this explanation, things become a little difficult. Instead of one Divine Being in the Bible, Christians are presented with what appears to be Three.

If we read the Bible, we will encounter, right at the beginning, that one of the Hebrew names for God is YHWH (pronounced Yahweh). YHWH makes appearances throughout the Old Testament. In the New Testament, He is likened to a father, and so we see a Divine Being referred to as the Father, who resides in heaven and deserves glory. But the Bible also talks about a Being called Jesus, who is also described as God!

In describing Jesus’ birth, the Gospel of John opens with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1; emphasis added). In Greek, the term logos, translated in English as “Word,” carries the connotation of creative force, mental ability, and reason. In this passage, the Word refers to a Divine Being with knowledge and power who was not only with God in the beginning of Creation but is Himself God.

And later, when Philip asked Jesus to show the disciples the heavenly Father, “Jesus answered: ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”?’ ” (John 14:9).

And if that muddles things, consider that Jesus also claimed to forgive sins and said that He and the Father are One (Luke 5:21–23; John 10:30; 17:11). It is therefore not surprising that the religious leaders of the day tried to stone Jesus “for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33). Jesus was not just some wise Teacher. He claimed to be divine. The New Testament says that Jesus participated in the Creation of the world (John 1:1–3; Colossians 1:15, 16).

An Ethereal Being?

To add to the confusion, we also have a Third element to this “painting” of God. Known as the Holy Spirit or Spirit of God, this Being also appears to have been at work at Creation too. Speaking of the world before it was formed into a habitable planet for humans and animals, Genesis 1:2 says, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (emphasis added).

The Spirit also gives people skills and knowledge (Exodus 31:3), enables them to prophesy (1 Samuel 10:10), and can even be rebelled against (Psalm 106:33).

In the New Testament, Jesus tells the disciples that even though He is ascending to heaven, He will “ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16, 17).

This Spirit is not some blind, unintelligent force. It has a will that can make decisions and choices. For example, 1 Corinthians 12:11 says that He distributes spiritual gifts to Christians “just as he determines.”

Explaining the Confusing

Finally, there’s the picture of all Three—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—together at Jesus’ baptism: As Jesus rose out of the water “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’ ” (Luke 3:22).

How’s that for a confusing picture? While Christians and Jews agree that there is only one God, Christians see a picture of Three.

Some people have created clever analogies to explain this picture: God is Three, and yet One just like ice, rain, and vapor are all water; God is like past, present, and future in that they are all different aspects and yet all fall under the heading of time; or when two people enter a marriage, they become “one” (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5, 6).

While helpful in understanding what scholars call the “Godhead,” it still leaves us scratching our heads as to how it all works. We can see this Three-in-One picture and create analogies, making the important point that all Three are God yet distinct. But ultimately this nature of God is beyond human comprehension. The best we have to describe what we see is the term Trinity. While it points to the picture of God in Scripture, it does not propose to offer a precise definition of all of God’s workings. This bothers our minds that like to classify and organize and pin down information.

Nevertheless, I have come to appreciate this mysterious aspect of God. Why should I be surprised to find it beyond my ability to completely understand the very fabric of God’s being? If I could define God, classify Him, and put Him in a neat little box, He would cease to be God, and I would cease to worship Him as I move on to other subjects of study.

So while the Trinity can be a frustrating mystery to solve, it is also a beautiful springboard that makes me pause in awe as I worship an infinitely complex God.

Unconfusing the Confusing

by Seth Pierce
From the July 2011 Signs