The doctrine of the Trinity is woven into our worship every week. We are called to worship in the Name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. We confess the Trinity in the Nicene Creed. We are blessed in the Name of the Trinity.
Pervasive as it is, the Trinity can be bewildering. How can we have three, the Father, Son, and Spirit, who are all God, and yet not have three Gods? How is this any different from having three human beings who are all human but three distinct individuals? How is this different from having one human being who can takes on three different personas? The church has insisted that neither of these options is correct, but how can that be?
The church’s explanations don’t seem very illuminating. The discussions revolve around philosophical terms like nature, substance or being, subsistence or person, each of which has a variety of different meanings and none of which seems to really tell us what exactly God is. It’s tempting to throw up our hands, as Augustine did at various points, and say, “We use these words because we must say something about God. But we don’t quite know what the words mean when we say them.”
Perhaps even more puzzling is the question of what difference it all makes. We know that the doctrine of the Trinity is distinctive to Christianity, that it distinguishes us from all forms of polytheism, but also from Islam and Judaism, the chief alternative forms of monotheism in our world. We know it must be very, very important to Christian faith and life. But we are sometimes hard pressed to see how it is. An all-powerful Creator is pretty mysterious in itself. Why add to the mystery by saying that there are somehow Three in the one Creator? We’re tempted to throw up our hands and say, this time with Immanual Kant, The Trinity makes no practical difference.
That is a deeply mistaken conclusion, as Jesus’ prayer in John 17 demonstrates. Jesus is praying to His Father, and He describes the way He and His Father are one. It’s a mysterious way to talk about two being one. He says “You, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee” (v. 21). The Father is in the Son, yet the Son is in the Father. The Father dwells in the Son, yet the Son also dwells in the Father. Jesus makes no mention of the Spirit here, but based on other things in the New Testament, I believe we can say this: The Father dwells in the Son by the Spirit, and by that same Spirit, the Son dwells in the Father.
This is a strange way to talk. We normally think getting inside something, and getting that same something inside us, are opposites. We can’t have both at once. We cannot surround something that also surrounds us. We cannot dwell in something that has simultaneously taken up residence in us. But that’s the way Jesus talks about His Father and Himself. Who is the home and who is the resident? Is the Father the house in whom the Son lives? Or is the Son the house in whom the Father lives? Jesus smiles enigmatically, and says, Both.
But that’s not the oddest thing about what Jesus says. He is praying for the disciples, and He mentions the unity He has with the Father almost in passing. The prayer is for the disciples, “that they may all be one” (v. 21), and He prays that their unity might be “just as” the unity of the Father and Son. Specifically, He wants the disciples to occupy the Father and the Son, to be “in us” (v. 21). The Father has room for the Son, and the Son has room for the Father, and together they are making room for us to be “in them” as well.
And then He prays that the disciples would be unified as the Father and Son are unified, with Jesus in the disciples and the Father in Jesus who is in the disciples (v. 23). The disciples are “in Us,” but then “We” are in the disciples, and that’s because the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father. So: The Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father; and God’s relationship to the disciples mirrors the relation of Father and Son: God is in the disciples and the disciples in God.
And the implication is that the disciples are unified with one another in something like the same way. They are to be unified “even as” the Father and Son are unified. Father and Son are unified by being dwelling places for one another, and that implies that the disciples are to be unified in the same fashion.
To get the full effect of Jesus’ teaching, we need to add another term: Glory. Glory given and received and given again is what mediates unity from the Father-Son to the Father-Son-disciples. The prominence of glory in Jesus’ prayer stands out when we note the rolling, spiral structure of verses 20-23:
I pray on behalf of those who believed through their word
A. That they may be one
B. As, Father, You are in Me and I in You
C. That they may be in us
D. That world may believe you sent
E. Glory given to me I give to them
A’. That they may be one
B. As We are one, I in them, You in Me
C’. That they may mature into one (teteleiowmenoi eis hen)
D’. That the world may know You sent me and loved me.
Jesus moves through the same sequence twice: He prays that the disciples will be one as the Father and Son are one, and that leads into a prayer that the image of divine unity among the disciples will be evident to the world, proving that Jesus came from the Father and was loved by Him. The unity of the disciples confirms that Jesus is true Son, true Israel. The link between C and C’ is less obvious than the rest, but it implies that the rooting of the disciples “in Us” grows up into unity among the disciples.
What I want to highlight, though, is the uniqueness of E, Jesus’ reference to glory. That stands out as a central factor in the sequence Jesus describes. Jesus has received glory from the Father, and, because He does what He sees the Father doing, He gives glory, as the Father does. Having received glory, He doesn’t hoard it, but passes it on to the disciples, and that gift of glory has the intention of making the disciples one. The unity established by the gift of glory from Jesus to the disciples resembles the unity of the Father and Son. We can reason this way: The Father and Son are unified by the gift and reception of glory; they dwell in one another by virtue of the gift and reception of glory. And then the glory that comes from the Father to the Son is passed on to the disciples and those who believe on them, so that they mature into a unity that more and more resembles the perichoretic unity of the Father and Son. This supports Rich Bledsoe’s observation at this site earlier this year: “Only the Glory of God can create unity in small and in big ways.”
How does this work? There are mysteries here, but we may venture a few comments about the “mechanics” that link unity, mutual indwelling, and glory. First and foremost, we may say that the glory that the Father gives the Son and that the Son passes on to disciples is the Spirit. Peter tells us that the Father gave the Spirit to the Son, which the Son then passed to the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2). Not only do we see a structural parallel between John 17 and Acts 2, but we also see a similarity of result: The disciples are glorified, crowned by fire. When the Spirit comes, He unifies the body of Christ and is that body’s animating principle. “By one Spirit we are all baptized into one Body,” Paul says. Glory unifies because Glory is ultimately the Spirit who is the divine Matchmaker.
But we can also say this: Glory unifies not in itself but only when given and received and given again. The unity of Father and Son is expressed in the Father’s gift of Glory and the Son’s further gift of Glory. That is how the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father: They are in one another by gift and reception of the Glory-Spirit. All that the Father is and has, all His dazzling brightness, His power and justice and life, He grants fully to the Son, and the Son possesses it all in full, differing from the Father only in that He possesses all the Father’s Glory as the Son. The Father pours Himself into the Son; the Son doesn’t resist, doesn’t insist on being “his own man,” but gratefully, joyfully receives all that the Father gives. He makes infinite space in Himself for the infinite Glory that the infinite Father gives. And so they are one.
And then Jesus takes that infinite Glory, the Spirit, received from the Father, and gives it to the disciples, opening up space in them to receive Glory, to receive Himself, to receive the Father who is in Him. By that gift of Glory, the Father-Son indwell those who receive, that is, those who believe.
But if the process is to work, the disciples who receive the Glory that comes from the Father through the Son cannot become reservoirs of glory. As the Son does what He sees the Father doing, and so gives away the Glory He receives, so the disciples do what they see the Son doing, and bestow Glory. And as they bestow Glory on one another, they come to dwell in one another, and so mature toward unity, becoming one as the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father.
Bring this down to earth: A wealthy father gives an inheritance to his son, bestowing glory. The son may resist, may want to go his own way, but if he receives with gratitude, he is not only filled with the glory of his father, but is united to his father by a bond of gift and gratitude. A disciple with a gift of administration freely uses his gift for the benefit of fellow disciples; he bestows glory, and as he bestows the glory of that Spirit-given charisma, he glorifies other disciples, and is bound by gift and reception, so that he dwells in others as they dwell in him. A teacher generously shares his knowledge and experience with students, pouring the glory of his insights into them. They may not want to take his gift, but if they do, they are filled with the glory of their teacher’s wisdom, and are bound in perichoretic unity with him. A mother praises her faithful son, bestowing glory. Her son can respond with false humility and refuse her gift, but if he receives it, he becomes radiant with glory, and is united with his mother.
It can all go wrong, and has. Sons can refuse the gifts of fathers. Fathers can give pharmakos, poisoned gifts. Disciples can become rivals rather than mutual givers. But Jesus has prayed for something better. He has prayed that His disciples would be one as the Father and Son are one, and that means that He has prayed that the disciples would be one by the mutual exchange of Glory. If Jesus has prayed, and He has, we have reason to hope that His prayers will be answered.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.