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The Harmony of Plurality in Unity


The Trinity is, far from being an arcane and useless academic abstraction, actually critical and fundamental to the Christian faith. Here is a quick but useful definition of the Trinity that is found in our Congregational Confession of Faith:

We believe that the one God eternally exists in three infinitely excellent, coequal, and distinct Persons: God the Father, fountain of all being; God the Son, eternally begotten, not made, without beginning, being of one essence with the Father; and God the Holy Spirit, proceeding in the full, divine essence, as a Person, eternally from the Father and the Son. We believe that each Person in the Godhead is fully and completely God, equal in every divine perfection, and that they execute distinct but harmonious offices in the work of creation, providence, and redemption.

Here I want to zoom in on one implication of the truth that the Persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit are “distinct but harmonious.”

At The Gospel Coalition Atlantic chapter's 2016 conference, I heard Dr. Michael Reeves make the thought-provoking point that music reflects God’s Triune nature. Think about it. If you hear an Irish pennywhistle (a beautiful instrument, in my biased opinion, and one I used to play albeit rather badly!) it may sound lovely, even haunting. Yet it’s a simple instrument. It can only play a single tune or melody, one sequence or line of notes. A piano, on the other hand, affords a musician much more musical potential. Even a relative beginner to the piano can play not only a melody but (with the other hand) accompanying notes—a countermelody, or chords—resulting in harmony. The result is a more complex, multidimensional piece of music. Think again, then, of a band or orchestra, where multiple instruments—each playing different notes at different times—can be combined by skillful direction into incredibly complicated, and yet unified, music.

When we think of music in such a way, we begin to see that unity and diversity can, indeed, coexist, and in an incredibly beautiful way. It’s not bare unity, mere oneness—like a single pennywhistle or saxophone or oboe. It’s not even a unity of multiple, yet indistinguishably identical, things; playing precisely the same melody on two, five, or eight flutes at the same time doesn’t give you anything extra other than volume. No, what makes harmony in music work the way it does is the unity of distinct voices and sounds all working together.

As an analogy for the Trinity, even music will fail. God is one in three and three in one; God has no “parts” (i.e., he is, metaphysically speaking, "simple") and so even the Persons need to be understood not as components of God but as each fully possessing the being of God. Moreover, as the three Persons possess the same identical nature, ultimately it is those relationships of "begetting" and "procession--that is, the Son being eternally generated by the Father and the Spirit proceeding eternally from the Father and (or perhaps better, through) the Son--which distinguish the Persons in eternity. Harmony in music, on the other hand, is parts contributing to a larger whole, but the Trinity is not, because each of the Persons is fully God, not one-third of God. In a band there’s parts--the percussion section and the wind instruments and the strings and others; the percussion does not contain the trumpets, for instance. But in the Trinity each Person fully contains the other two—a doctrine called “interpenetration” or “perichoresis.”

The truth of God's Triune nature is beyond our finite ability to comprehend, hence why our analogies always fail. But I have to stress this lest we misunderstand. Music, if Dr. Reeves is correct, reflects the Trinity's distinctive yet harmonious offices in creation and redemption in a limited way, but like any other created thing simply cannot fully correspond to God's nature.

But what music tells us is that, in the universe God has created, plurality and unity are not opposed to each other. Even more: harmony can be an incredibly beautiful thing. No wonder the Bible is filled with examples and encouragements to music, then. No wonder there are angels—choirs of angels, many voices united—singing in heaven. No wonder that the church is called to encourage one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. In a universe created and upheld by the Triune God, what could be more fitting?

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