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On the Trinity: Augustine, the American Revolution, and my Jehovah’s Witness friend

I have a friend in a nursing home whom I visit regularly. Her name is Dinah and she is a widow. We met her through providence. A few years ago, her husband came to the house carrying both a friendly smile and Watchtower leaflets. He was a tall, thin and very elderly man. As we were just in the process of slaughtering our chickens, I did not have much time to speak with him. He was Dutch too, as it turned out, and told me that he was dying of cancer and therefore trying to witness to as many people as he could before he died. A heartbreaking confession! We visited his home, my husband and I, later that month before he and his wife moved into an old-age home where he subsequently died – died, as far as we know, still denying the Trinity. We have continued calling on his wife – on Dinah – and I have great conversations with her. That is to say, we get along fine on almost every subject except on that of the Trinity.

The Trinity is a difficult concept. Yet, the Trinity and the Gospel are one and the same. God saves us by sending his Son and His Spirit. As Galatians 4:4-6 explains:

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'”

To know God savingly is to know Him as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit.

The Hymn to the Trinity

There is a hymn known as “The Hymn to the Trinity.” The earliest publication of this hymn was bound into the 6th edition of George Whitefield’s 1757 Collection of Hymns for Public Worship. It is not known who wrote the words to this hymn but the melody was penned by Felice de Giardini. Because Giardini was Italian, this hymn is often referred to as “The Italian Hymn.”

Come, thou Almighty King,
Help us thy name to sing,
Help us to praise!
Father all glorious,
O’er all victorious!
Come and reign over us,
Ancient of days!

Jesus our Lord, arise,
Scatter our enemies,
And make them fall!
Let thine Almighty aid,
Our sure defence be made,
Our souls on thee be stay’d;
Lord hear our call!

Come, thou Incarnate Word,
Gird on thy mighty sword –
Our pray’r attend!
Come! and thy people bless,
And give thy word success,
Spirit of holiness
On us descend!

Come holy Comforter,
Thy sacred witness bear,
In this glad hour!
Thou who Almighty art,
Descend in ev’ry heart,
And ne’er from us depart.
Spirit of pow’r.

To the great one in three
Eternal praises be
Hence – evermore!
His sov’reign Majesty
May we in glory see,
And to eternity
Love and adore!

My friend Dinah could never sing this song. As a matter of fact, because she is such a devout Jehovah’s Witness, my belief in the Trinity makes me something of a polytheist in her eyes. I continually pray that God will open her eyes to the truth, beauty, and necessity of believing in the concept of our Triune God because only He can do that through the Holy Spirit.

Italian, British, and American

The mentioned “Italian Hymn” first appeared anonymously in London, England around 1757. It was about this time that the singing of the anthem “God Save Our Gracious King” was also coming into fashion. The “Italian Hymn” could be sung to the tune of “God Save Our Gracious King.” Perhaps that is why the author of the words of the “Italian Hymn” did not want to be known. The stanzas, you see, seemed to be somewhat of a defiant substitute for the words in the anthem which praised King George III of England. Things were brewing in the war department between the thirteen colonies and Britain and were leading up to the American Revolutionary War, (the war fought between Great Britain and the original 13 British colonies in North America from 1775 until 1783). The words to “God Save the King” were:

God save great George our king,
God save our noble king,
God save the king!
Send him victorious
Happy and glorious
Long to reign over us
God save the king!

The English anthem was often used as a rallying cry for the British troops. It aroused patriotism. There is a story associated with this.

One Sunday during the war, as the British troops were occupying New York City, and very much appeared to have the upper hand, a group of soldiers went to a local church in Long Island. Known to the people as “lobsters” or “bloody backs” because of their red coats, these soldiers were not welcome. For the church members it would have felt akin to having Nazis sitting next to you in a pew during the Second World War in a city like Amsterdam. People were uncomfortable, glancing at the enemy who boldly smiled and flaunted their red coats as they sat in the benches. They obviously felt they had the upper hand. No one smiled back. Children leaned against their mothers, peering around at the soldiers. The tenseness was palpable. A British officer stood up at some point during that service, and demanded that all of the folks present sing “God Save the King” as a mark of loyalty to Britain. People looked down at the wooden floor, their mouths glued shut. One of the soldiers walked over to the organist and ordered him to play the melody so that the singing could begin. The organist, after hesitatingly running his fingers over the keyboard, started softly. The notes of the “Italian Hymn” stole across the aisles. But it was not “God save great George as king” that then burst forth out of the mouths of the colonists. No, it was “Come, Thou Almighty King,” and the voices swelled up to the rafters of the church and it was with great fervor that the Triune God was praised.

It’s nice to reflect on a story like that – to perhaps ask ourselves if we would rather erupt into singing a patriotic hymn about the Trinity than to buckle under unlawful pressure.

Still, the Trinity is a mystery. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deut. 29:29).

Augustine on the Trinity

Augustine of Hippo was fascinated by the doctrine of the Trinity. He pondered the mystery of the Trinity over and over in his head and wanted very much to be able to explain it logically. He even wrote a book on it. The book, entitled De Trinitate (which you can download here) represents an exercise in understanding what it means to say that God is at the same time Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. Augustine had a desire to explain to critics of the Nicene Creed that the divinity and co-equality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were Biblical.

We often, like Augustine, want very much to explain God’s tri-unity fully to people such as Dinah. We want to convince Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims of the truth and need for this doctrine. This, of course, we cannot do on our own, even though we should faithfully speak of the hope that is in us.

There is a story, a legend, that one day Augustine was walking along the shore of the sea, and that as he was walking he was reflecting on God and His tri-unity. As he was plodding along in the sand, he was suddenly confronted with a little child. The child, a little girl, had a cup in her hand and was running back and forth between a hole she had made in the sand and the sea. She sprinted to the water, filled her cup and then dashed back to the hole and poured the water into it. Augustine was mystified and spoke to her: “Little child, what are you doing?”

Smiling up at him, she replied, “I am trying to empty the sea into this hole.”

“How do you think,” Augustine responded, “that you can empty the immense amount of water that is in the sea into that tiny hole which you have dug with that little cup?”

She smiled at him again and answered back, “And how do you suppose you can comprehend the immensity of God with your small head?”

And then the child was gone.

Conclusion

It is wonderful to ponder on the character of God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of God is merely an enumeration of His attributes:

“God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”

Indeed, the benediction from 2 Cor. 13:14, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all,” is a benediction that should fill us with wonder and thankfulness.


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