Why did God wait to reveal the Trinity? Sharing theories and metaphors from past theologians, Dr. D. Blair Smith explains how the progressive revealing of the Trinity prepares us to understand God better.
The Trinity in the Bible
Why did God wait so long to reveal himself as Trinity? Well, it isn’t until the fortieth book of the Bible that we have a clear articulation of God as Trinity. In a place like Matthew 28:19, where Jesus instructs his disciples to baptize into the name—singular—of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So there you have the singular name, indicating the one nature of God, and then the names of the three persons. That’s in the first book in the New Testament, the fortieth book of the Bible, and of course, the rest of the New Testament has many other texts that make clear a God who is triune. But again, that’s the fortieth Book of the Bible.There are indications of the Trinity in the Old Testament, but not with the same clarity that we find in the New Testament. Why did the previous thirty-nine not have God’s trinitarian nature so clearly articulated? Now, in asking that question, I don’t want to say that there is nothing of God the Trinity in the Old Testament. I definitely think there is—even in the first chapter of the Bible, in Genesis 1, and then throughout the Old Testament, whether it’s things about the Messiah and the King, or looking forward to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. There are indications of the Trinity in the Old Testament, but not with the same clarity that we find in the New Testament.
Gregory of Nazianzus and the Trinity
As you might imagine, Christians have been asking this question for millennia, and there have been a few very interesting and helpful answers. I want to focus in on two. The first comes from a figure that’s very famous in Trinitarian theology. His name’s Gregory of Nazianzus. He comes from the golden age of reflection on the Trinity, from which we have the great Nicene Creed. Indeed, Gregory was very helpful in clearly articulating what the Nicene Creed is teaching. So, Gregory, as one of the Cappadocian Fathers, in his fifth theological oration, gave an explanation for why God might have waited to reveal himself clearly as Trinity. And there’s an illustration that helps in understanding what he says there. Imagine that you’ve been in a dark room for a long period of time. Maybe today we could imagine being in a movie theater. And you’ve been in that dark room and your eyes have grown accustomed to it, but then you go out into the brightness of midday. Well, we all have had that experience before, where that light then comes in and it practically blinds us until they can adjust to the light once again. Well, Gregory says, if we would have had all the light of the Trinity at the very beginning of the human race and in those earliest chapters and books of the Bible, we would not have yet been able to take it in. And so, what we have is a gradual unfolding in scripture, starting with God’s singular nature: the great Shema, the confession of the Israelites, “Hear, O Israel, our Lord, our God, our Lord is one.” And then, as scripture goes on, an unfolding of who he is as one in three, and that’s God accommodating himself to our ability to take that truth in, just like our eyes have to be gradually exposed to light in order to benefit from it.
B.B. Warfield and the Trinity
The progressive revelation related to the Trinity is further explained by the great 19th and 20th-century theologian from Princeton, B.B. Warfield. He built on this notion that truth is progressively revealed to us. But what he built in there, was God’s redemptive purposes unfolding within that progressive revelation, and that certain things needed to be in place in order for it to make sense for God to send his son in the incarnation, and to pour out his spirit at Pentecost. If we would have had all the light of the Trinity at the very beginning of the human race and in those earliest chapters and books of the Bible, we would not have yet been able to take it in.Maybe another illustration can helpfully elucidate what is Warfield’s view. Think of a great meal, at a holiday meal, where you’re going to have a table with many settings. It doesn’t make sense to put the main dish right on the table when the table hasn’t been set. Nobody’s going to have things to eat it with. You’re not going to have all the things you might eat before, like a salad, your main dish. And so when you get ready for a big meal, you’re going to put out tablecloths, you’re going to set with utensils, you’re going to put the plates out, you’re going to put the centerpiece, all of these things. And then, at the end, you bring the main dish, and it can be enjoyed with all of those things already set in place. Well, there’s something there similar to being able to grasp and understand who Jesus Christ is: our Savior. That was built on so much that came before it in the revelation of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament, and the same with the outpouring of the Spirit.
So why did God wait so long? I think these are two helpful answers. And one way to prepare us to be able to take in the great light that is trinitarian truth, and to give us the hooks—if I could put it that way—of progressive revelation in redemptive history, in order to understand clearly who God is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.