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“Why stop at three?”

This was the question a Jewish religious scholar raised about a set of essays on the Trinity. It’s been many years now, but if I remember correctly his contention was somewhat akin to Gerard Manley Hopkins reveling that “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” God is manifest in myriad ways. Why limit and label them as three?

I’m always cautious about saying too much about the doctrine of the Trinity. It is easy to slip into accidental heterodoxy. That said, my reply to “Why stop at three?” would be that this is how God has chosen to be revealed to us. This is how we have encountered God. That’s what scripture and tradition have pointed us toward. Not six, not four, not twelve, not two, but three Persons.

There need not be a “reason” for it. It is simply the nature of God.

Now, I’m sort of going to transgress what I just said. I’m going to postulate a “reason” for three-in-one/one-in-three. Or at least I’m going to suggest a real upside to God’s inherent threeness, not twoness.

Three prevents duality, poles, a pair, an axis, a Janus-like deity with two faces. We Christians already tend that way. God the Father and Jesus Christ gain the attention. Often they are like bookends. Meanwhile the Holy Spirit can only hope to sneak through the cracks on occasion.

I’d suggest that the Trinity tells us that God is not binary. Even more, that is really Good News!

What is Binary?

Binary thinking is said to be a trait of Enlightenment thinking. Modernity desired to classify and categorize, and with that to control. Binaries give easy handles. Pairs. Opposites. They’re definitive, comprehensive, and universal. They come in handy when trying to explain and teach.

Male-female. Right-wrong. Conservative-liberal. First world-third world. Capitalist-socialist. Civilized-uncivilized. White-black. Rational-irrational. Human-beast. Spiritual-material. Friend-enemy. Clean-unclean. True-false. Either-or. Yes-no. Good-bad. Please add to the list.

Perhaps the Trinity tells us that it is never so simple. And perhaps the Trinity can lead us out of this confining schema.

Prairie delight

A few months ago, I was in the Nebraska prairie. A biologist was describing all the factors at play in what might look like acres of nondescript weeds. Rain, fire, sunshine, prairie dog holes, pollinator populations, bison, or now cattle, grazing and trampling, plus many more factors–all play a part in how the prairie will grow and change that day, next year, the next decade.

Then she added, “That doesn’t even include the role of the soil with its fungi and bacteria. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we probably know more about the deepest part of the ocean than we understand about the complexity of the soil!”

When one plant thrives, another ebbs. The next year or maybe the next month, they will be reversed. I’m not able to recapture the wonder and complexity and magnificence the biologist conveyed that day.

It all was so marvelously intricate and interconnected. What once was as simple as tilled-untilled, corn-weeds, useful-useless, was no more. The biologist continued in the non-binary vein. “Our goal isn’t to roll back farming and return to all prairie. It’s not either-or.”

I even wondered why my farming ancestors took such pride in the straightness of their rows of corn, as if an indicator of the state of their soul. Straight-crooked. Tamed-wild. Right-wrong. Good-bad.

Things are complicated!

Abiy Ahmed, President of Ethiopia

If binaries are part of a grand project to categorize and explain (and probably also control, restrict, even subjugate) it is amazing, almost laughable, how small, local, and limited to our time and circumstances many of our most cherished and important binaries actually are. For example, recently I was intrigued by a discussion of how to categorize 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ethiopian President, Abiy Ahmed. Is he an “Evangelical” or “Pentecostal”? It turns out that these terms take on different meanings in Ethiopia. Our labels can’t even transfer to another continent. How can they transfer to God?

Andrew Yang

Closer to home, here in Iowa, now awash with Democratic presidential candidates getting ready for our first-in the-nation caucuses, I’ve enjoyed Andrew Yang’s quirky mashup of labels. He’s using slogans like “Human-centered capitalism,” “Not right. Not left. Forward!” or “MATH–Make America Think Harder.” This isn’t an endorsement of Yang, but an illustration of how labels–typically binary–restrict us with their predictability and smallness.

Today the term non-binary is most often associated with non-traditional gender identities. We’re coming to realize what obstetricians have known for a while. It isn’t as simple as the binary, male and female. Instead, there are many of what James Alison describes as “naturally-occurring, non-pathological, minority variants” in gender identities and sexual orientation. I affirm this as one implication of the non-binary God, but it is still more than that.

A non-binary God

My last couple of posts here on The Twelve have looked at applying the labels “conservative” and “liberal” to God. It works and yet it really doesn’t work. One of the things that seems not to work is the silliness and danger of applying our tiny labels to God.

We are used to hearing different pairs of terms or opposing poles applied to God. Binaries like grace and truth. Creation and redemption. Law and grace. Forgiving and holy. Loving and pure.

But they’re an awkward fit with a three-in-one God. They seem to make God sort of struggling with an internal inconsistency or tension. Usually when I hear such pairs, I detect an unspoken agenda to be sure that God is not too loving or overly gracious. We certainly wouldn’t want that!

Moving beyond binaries inevitably raises the specter of relativism. It puts us on that slippery slope where the camel’s nose is allowed into the tent and the night where all cats are grey–to mix a few metaphors. There is no more right or wrong. It all just depends.

Such concerns are worth noting. We Christians sprung up from from apocalyptic soil, where things are oppositional and absolute. There is good and evil, light and dark, angels and demons. Often, there isn’t much nuance or shading.

Still I think it is worth the risk. We all are already more relativist than we can see or dare admit. Our binary ways and the binary god we have fashioned have left us stuck in a lot of predicaments. Becoming less binary might be a way to avoid conflict, to round off our sharp edges, to soothe our divided world.

But what if it is more than just a pragmatic social strategy? What if it is also a more faithful understanding of God? A bigger, wilder, free God, not willing to be confined in box A or B. Three but not three. One but not one.

What if we became more fluent in saying “Maybe?” I don’t know. Sometimes. It’s complicated. Both-and. Neither-nor. I wonder if a non-binary three-in-one and one-in-three God’s reply to many of our questions and conflicts might be “none of the above.”

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    So good.

  • Heidi De Jonge says:

    So much yes.


    so good, indeed. thank you!

  • Thomas Goodhart says:

    Yes! And I particularly loved the part about the prairie and the soil!

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Steve! Well spoken. SO many people don’t get nuance. You get it, man. Thanks.

  • Jim Payton says:

    In the first church I served as pastor, an elder who emigrated from Rotterdam and was known for his concern always to distinguish truth from error said to me, “We talk a lot about ‘black’ and ‘white,’ but most of life is lived in the grays.” The longer I live, the more I appreciate his wisdom on this score.

  • Helen Luhrs says:

    Well said. And I always appreciate a prairie connection.

  • Dan Plasman says:

    Many thanks, Steve. Reminded me of Richard Powers’ “THE OVERSTORY”— always more going on than we think or see.

  • Allan Janssen says:

    Richard St. Victor

  • David Pettit says:

    Thanks, Steve. Well articulated. I especially appreciate your bringing in the enlightenment endeavor of categorizing/controlling the world.

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    I still remember a lecture by John Piet at Western Seminary discussing the peskiness of binary thinking when reading the Old Testament, and how the God of the prophets refuses to be boxed in by either/or interpretation. He would have appreciated your thinking here, Steve; so do I.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for your insights into God as Trinity and not as a binary God. I guess I’m a little confused as to the practicality of one over the other. Of course the Trinity depends on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each, being fully God, separate but yet one. How that gets worked out certainly lends itself to heterodoxy. So many understandings of the Trinity within Christianity. But outside the box, the confusion is taken away. Jesus is not God, therefore no Trinity.

    Christianity has piggybacked on the Jewish religion. And yet to orthodox Jews there never was a question as to whether Jesus was God. He was simply a false messiah who has done more damage to their religion than any other person. To the Muslims, who have recognized Jesus as a great prophet, there is no question that Jesus is not divine. He was a human, appointed by God. To the Jehovah Witnesses who use the same Scriptures as Christians, and yet they do not recognize Jesus as equal to Jehovah God and deny the Trinity. And Mormons believe in the three persons as distinct from each other, unlike that of Christians. As to other religions, although most might recognize Jesus as a historical person, none recognize him as God. And to the non religious, although a good moral example, he is not God. It’s Christians alone who support this idea of Jesus as divine, and therefor a Trinity. Is there no wisdom outside of Christianity?

    It may be, Steve, that Christianity only makes sense from within the box. But how can the Christian gospel make sense to those on the outside? Thanks for sharing your ideas. It’s good to learn from you and others some of the diversity of the Christian faith.

  • Sara Tolsma says:

    Love this!

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