The Importance of the Trinity

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from Divine Love Theory: How the Trinity is the Source and Foundation of Morality
by Adam Lloyd Johnson

Ancient Greek philosophers spent a considerable amount of time speculating about what constitutes ultimate reality, often framing their theories as a search for the elemental “stuff” of which everything else is made. However, if Christianity is true, when the final curtain of reality is pulled back, what will be found is not fire, earth, air, or water but loving personal relationships between three divine persons. Alan Torrance goes so far as to say that there’s no reason why we should “not conceive of the intra-divine communion of the Trinity as the ground of all that is.”[1] Similarly, William Hasker affirms that “the doctrine of the Trinity is an integral part of the metaphysically necessary ultimate structure of reality.”[2] In the context of explaining the loving relationships within the Trinity, Millard Erickson describes this love as “the attractive force of unselfish concern for another person” and thus the “most powerful binding force in the universe.”[3] This is more than mere sentiment; if God is the ultimate reality, and if he exists as three divine persons in loving relationships with each other, then love is the basic fabric of reality. 

Unfortunately, as Keith Whitfield remarks, Christians “have not always embraced the Trinity’s central role in theologizing. The Trinity has been treated as one doctrine of many. But this doctrine is not just one article of faith among many other articles. It is the central article in which every other Christian doctrine is grounded and from which every other Christian doctrine is shaped. . . . We have assumed the trinitarian formulation for generations, but we have not always thought deeply about what it means to proclaim that God is triune and how that informs everything else.”[4] One of my goals in this chapter is to describe how God’s triune nature provides the foundation for morality and to explain how this important truth helps shed light on a host of moral issues. Norris Clarke says it well:

The highest instance of being is a unity that is not solitary, like Plotinus’s One, but Communion. Here we see in the most striking way how a specifically Christian philosophy can fruitfully shed light on a philosophical problem itself, by drawing on Revelation. The light from Revelation does not operate strictly as the premise for a philosophical argument, properly speaking, but operates as opening up for reflection a new possibility in the nature and meaning of being that we might never have thought of ourselves from our limited human experience, but which, once opened up, is so illuminating that it now shines on its own as an insight into the nature of being and persons that makes many things suddenly fall into place whose depths we could not fathom before. More and more in recent years I have come to realize that the doctrine of the Trinity is a uniquely powerful source of illumination in both the philosophy of being and the philosophy of the person.[5] 

I’ll attempt to show here how the doctrine of the Trinity is also a powerful source of illumination in the realm of moral theory. 

It may be best to begin with a brief overview of Christianity that highlights the importance of the Trinity as told through the common motifs of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. However, it’s important to note that even before creation, God existed as three divine persons in loving relationships with each other. Carl F. H. Henry writes, “The doctrine of the Trinity exhibits in the eternal nature of God a life of intimate love, communion and self-giving that in principle cancels the complaint that a timeless deity must be loveless and introvert.”[6]

Understanding God’s eternal trinitarian nature is helpful in illuminating the realm of morality for several reasons. For instance, because morality is inextricably tied to personal relationships, it makes more sense to talk about love and morality in the context of multiple divine persons than in a context of a single person existing in eternal isolation. It’s difficult to even conceive of love, kindness, respect, and so on where there’s only one divine person. Erickson’s description of these eternal divine relationships is worth quoting at length: 

Love exists within the Godhead as a binding relationship of each of the persons to each of the others. Indeed, the attribute of love is more than just another attribute. The statement “God is love” in 1 John is a very basic characterization of God, which cannot be understood simply as a definition or an equation, but is more than merely, “God is loving.” . . . In a sense, God being love virtually requires that he be more than one person. Love, to be love, must have both a subject and an object. Thus, if there were not multiplicity in the persons of the Godhead, God could not really be love prior to this creation of other subjects.[7]

Richard Swinburne even proclaims, “There is something profoundly imperfect and therefore inadequately divine in a solitary divine individual.”[8] God had no need to create other persons in order to be loving, moral, and relational because, being three persons in fellowship, he has always been these things. Hasker explains, “Wholly apart from creation, love and relationship abound within God, in the eternal loving mutuality of the persons of the Trinity.”[9] 

If God existed before creation as a loving fellowship of divine persons, it may seem puzzling as to why he decided to create other persons at all. Though he didn’t necessarily have to, he chose to create other persons, human beings in his image, to expand this fellowship of love. Thomas McCall argues, “There is no obvious incoherence in maintaining that the triune God who enjoys perfection in the intra-trinitarian life may desire to share that life while not needing to do so to reach fulfillment or perfection.”[10] William Lane Craig explains that existing “alone in the self-sufficiency of His own being, enjoying the timeless fullness of the intra-trinitarian love relationships, God had no need for the creation of finite persons. . . . He did this, not out of any deficit in Himself or His mode of existence, but in order that finite temporal creatures might come to share in the joy and blessedness of the inner life of God.”[11] In other words, God created us for loving relationships, to love him and to love each other. We were created to join him in the loving fellowship of the Trinity; the love we were created for is the same love that’s found within the life of the triune God. 

Understanding God’s intent in creating human beings gives us insight concerning the meaning and purpose of our lives. Clarke explains, “The very inner life of God himself, the supreme fullness of what it means to be, is by its very nature self-communicative Love, which then subsequently flows over freely in the finite self-communication that is creation.”[12] “To be an actualized human person, then, is to be a lover, to live a life of inter-personal self-giving and receiving.”[13] Clarke argues, therefore, that “no one can reach mature development as a person without the experience of opening oneself, giving oneself to another in self-forgetting love of some kind. To be a true self, one must somehow go out of oneself, forget oneself. This apparent paradox is an ancient one and has been noted over and over in the various attempts to work out philosophies of love and friendship down the ages.”[14]

This purpose and design in God’s creation of humans can be seen in the very first human relationship God initiated between Adam and Eve. Created in God’s image to reflect the Trinity, they were individual persons who were to come together in loving communion and become united as one (Gen. 2:24). Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains that in their union, they expressed “the two complementary sides of the matter: that of being an individual and that of being one with the other.”[15] 

One of the ways Adam and Eve were to freely express their love for God was through their obedience to him. The Bible explains that loving God and obeying God are closely connected. For example, Jesus says, “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him. . . . If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him” ( John 14:21–23). Unfortunately, Adam and Eve made a terrible choice to disobey God’s command and eat the fruit God forbade. If obeying God is the way to love God, then this disobedience was akin to not loving God, thus ruining their loving communion with him. Concerning this event, John Hare explains, “The basic command is not about the fruit, but is the command to love God that comes out of the experience of being loved by God. Refraining from the fruit is merely a symbol of that response.”[16]

Thankfully, God continued to love us in spite of our disobedience and orchestrated a way to restore our loving communion with him. One of the divine persons, the Son, became incarnate as a human being and lived the perfect life of loving obedience to God the Father that we’ve all failed to live. In addition, by dying on the cross he paid the penalty that we deserved for our disobedience—death and eternal relational separation from God. God has promised that anyone who chooses to trust in Christ and what he did for us will be forgiven and reconciled back to a loving relationship with him. Though God desires everyone to experience this restored fellowship (1 Tim. 2:4), he doesn’t force this decision on anyone but instead calls, woos, and draws people to himself through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Those who decide not to trust in Christ will continue to be relationally separated from God for all eternity (2 Thess. 1:6–10). The primary suffering of people in hell is that they’ll no longer be able to love but instead will be cut off forever from having a loving relationship with God and loving relationships with others; they won’t be able to fulfill the purpose they were created for. 

Many have remarked on how God’s trinitarian nature first instigates and then beautifully permeates his plan for our salvation. While commenting on Scott Swain’s view of the Trinity, Malcolm Yarnell notes, “Swain stands in a long line of orthodox writers when he considers communion with God and God’s redemption of humanity as an essential outworking of the doctrine of God the Trinity.”[17] For example, Hare, explaining Duns Scotus’s theology, writes that the “journey we are on is a journey towards our final good, which Scotus takes to be that we become ‘co-lovers’ of God (condiligentes), entering into the love that the three persons of the Trinity have for each other.”[18] For a more contemporary example, consider Thomas Torrance’s summary of salvation: “The Love that flows between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit freely flows in an outward movement of loving activity toward us with whom God creates a communion of love corresponding to the Communion of Love which he ever is in himself. . . . It is as this infinite, unlimited, transcendent self-giving Love that God is, that God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, three Persons, one Being, seeks and creates fellowship with us in order to reconcile us with himself and to share with us his own eternal Life and Love.”[19]

John 17, where Jesus prays to his Father concerning his desire to restore fallen humanity back to a right relationship with the Trinity, is one of the clearest windows into the trinitarian nature of our salvation. In this chapter Jesus explains the eternal love within the Trinity as follows: “You, Father, are in Me and I in You. . . . You loved me before the foundation of the world” (17:21, 24). He expresses his desire for his disciples to join this fellowship when he prays “that they also may be in Us” (17:21). In response to this verse, Vern Poythress clarifies, “We who are human do not become divine ourselves, but the fellowship that we have with the Father and the Son is analogous to that exalted and perfect fellowship that the Father and the Son have with each other.”[20]

Jesus continues in his prayer by explaining that “the glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me” ( John 17:22–23). Royce Gruenler notes, “Jesus’ prayer reveals that the goal of the divine family is to bring the separated and fallen into a redeemed and unified family that reflects the relationship of the divine persons in their ultimate oneness.”[21] Salvation, then, is ultimately a restoration of our relationship to the loving communion of the Trinity that we were initially created for. Jesus, while praying to the Father, explains, “I have made Your name known to them . . . so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them” (17:26). Whitfield notes, “Jesus, as the beloved Son of the Father, came to allow us to participate in the love that he has with his Father by the power of the Spirit.”[22] To participate in this mutual indwelling is to know God, which is eternal life (17:3). 

[1] A. Torrance, Persons in Communion, 293.

[2] Hasker, Metaphysics, 174.

[3] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 221.

[4] Whitfield, introduction to Trinitarian Theology, 14–15.

[5] Clarke, Person and Being, 87.

[6] Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, 52.

[7] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 221.

[8] Swinburne, Christian God, 190.

[9] Hasker, “Adequate God,” 228.

[10] McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?, 210.

[11] Craig, Time and Eternity, 241.

[12] Clarke, Person and Being, 12.

[13] Clarke, Person and Being, 76.

[14] Clarke, Person and Being, 96.

[15] Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 99–100.

[16] Hare, God’s Command, 302.

[17] Yarnell, “From God to Humanity,” 84.

[18] Hare, God and Morality, 254.

[19] T. Torrance, Christian Doctrine of God, 166.

[20] Poythress, Knowing and the Trinity, 52.

[21] Gruenler, Trinity in the Gospel of John, 129.

[22] Whitfield, conclusion to Trinitarian Theology, 176.

This post is adapted from Divine Love Theory: How the Trinity is the Source and Foundations of Morality by Adam Lloyd Johnson. This title was released March 14th, 2023. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

What if the loving relationships of the Trinity are the ultimate, objective source for living morally?

Adam Lloyd Johnson injects a fresh yet eternal reality into the thriving debate over the basis of moral absolutes. While postmodernism’s moral relativism once temporarily disrupted the footing of classic moral theories like natural law and divine command, many nontheistic philosophers assert that morality must rest on something real and objective. Divine Love Theory proposes a grounding for morality not only in the creator God but as revealed in the Christian Scriptures–Father, Son, and Spirit eternally loving one another.

Johnson contends that the Trinity provides a remarkably convincing foundation for making moral judgments. One leading atheistic proposal, godless normative realism, finds many deficiencies in theistic and Christian theories, yet Johnson shows how godless normative realism is susceptible to similar errors. He then demonstrates how the loving relationships of the Trinity as outlined in historic Christian theology resolve many of the weakest points in both theistic and atheistic moral theories.


About Author

Dr. Adam Lloyd Johnson earned his Ph.D. with a concentration in Philosophy of Religion at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He teaches for the Rhineland School of Theology in Wölmersen, Germany and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He also serves with Ratio Christi, a university campus ministry. He is the author or editor of several published works including A Debate on God and Morality: What is the Best Account of Objective Moral Values and Duties?, co-authored with William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Erik Wielenberg, and others.

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