So you’ve been rocking along through the New City Catechism weeks one and two, and it’s been great so far. “What is our only hope in life and death?” and “What is God?” These are the sort of basic questions we would expect to be helping our children answer. Feeling good about your progress so far, you open up the question for week three: “How many persons are there in God?“. Suddenly you are questioning whether this whole catechism thing is really such a good idea.
Let’s face it, the concept of the Trinity is befuddling enough for adults. Surely our young children are not ready to be introduced to such a weighty subject, right? Well, not so fast. While it is true that we cannot explain away the Trinity in such neat and tidy terms as we can with the accounts of Creation or the Flood, we should not be afraid to teach our children about the more mysterious elements of our faith. My friend Russell Moore says it best:
Sometimes we seek a quick analogy for children because we want to put our kids out of their mystery. If the Trinity is an easy explanation (it’s like a shamrock; it’s like water, ice, and steam), we can “move on.” We’re afraid if we say that the Trinity is in some ways beyond comprehension that our kids won’t trust us to tell them with confidence about the truth of the gospel.
But Jesus tells us there’s something about a child’s way of believing that ought to be true of all of us. We must, he tells us, become like them if we’re going to enter the kingdom of God at all. In one sense, it’s true, children are often hyper-literal. I remember thinking as a child that a “soul” was a little version of myself located in one of the chambers of my heart (and wearing a soldier’s uniform, for some reason).
But, in the more important ways, children are open to mystery and paradox in ways adults often aren’t. Children explore the world around them with a wide-eyed sense of wonder. They don’t comprehend it all, and they know they don’t comprehend it all.
That’s the kind of blessed ignorance I believe Jesus commends. In order to believe, you must trust everything God has said to you, but you must also see him, not your own comprehension, as Lord. To see at all we must know that we “see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12).
With that the case, we ought to boldly say to our children, “God is One and God is three. I can’t fully explain all of that because that’s how big and mysterious God and his ways are. Isn’t that wonderful?” When your child says, “That boggles my mind,” don’t respond with a worried handwringing but with a twinkle in your eye. “I know!” you say. “Me too! Isn’t that wild, and great!”
That doesn’t end the conversation, of course. It only begins it. But we’ve got several trillion years and beyond to explore the depths of the Trinitarian reality. A start is what we need.
So you bravely decide to wade into these unsettled waters. Where do you begin? What are the essential things that a child needs to know? Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition has some helpful tips to get you started.
Here are the basic things we need to make sure that we communicate:
- There are three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- Each person is God.
- Each person is distinct.
- The Father is not the Son.
- The Spirit is not the Father.
- There is only one God.
Here is a helpful diagram that Taylor made to help his daughter understand these principles when she was seven:
And here is a short, helpful video (with puppets!) that should also be a good resource to show to your children.
Before we wrap this up, let’s also discuss briefly a couple of concepts that we should be careful to not teach our children about the Trinity. The first is called modalism. Modalism claims that there is one person who appears to us in three different forms (or “modes) depending on His mood and circumstances. For example, in the Old Testament God appeared as “Father”. This same person would appear as the “Son” in the New Testament, and then finally as the “Spirit” after Jesus’ ascension and the establishment of the New Testament Church. We can know that modalism is errant because of the many places in Scripture that we see the persons of the Trinity relating to each other personally (e.g. the baptism of Jesus).
We should also be careful to avoid Arianism. Arianism (named after Arius, the man who developed it; not to be confused with the concept of an Aryan race that spawned Hitler’s Nazism) teaches that only God the Father is truly God. The Son and the Spirit are almost God, but not quite. They are simply the two coolest creatures that God ever created. Arianism is easily disputed by the multiple claims of deity that Jesus makes of Himself in the Gospels. The prologue of the Gospel of John also makes it clear that Jesus (the Word) was present and an active participant in the process of Creation. We should not take this lightly, however. It’s a big enough deal that it made jolly old St. Nicholas, Santa Claus himself, punch Arius during an argument at the Council of Nicea. I’m not even joking. Check it out for yourself.
We live in a world that is hostile to the things of God. As our children grow up, they will be surrounded by worldviews and philosophies that will vie for their affection, and if successful, harden their hearts toward their Creator. Let’s fight back with fire by arming them with biblical truth so that when the days of testing come they will be like that tree “firmly planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3), and ready to withstand the storm.