The apostle Paul would not have been able to define the Trinity, yet he was able with ease to describe the activity and presence of the three persons of the Trinity. While propositions about God are significant, it is the experience of God that led to the nascent formulations of Trinitarian thought. Neither Paul nor the other Jews who were the first disciples of Jesus were trained in the Greek philosophical distinctions that would mark the later conciliar decrees, nor were they hungering to innovate about the nature of God when they became disciples of Jesus.
What imposed itself upon these early believers was the experience of God in their midst. It was in Jesus that the nature of God was most fully revealed, yet initially this was through Jesus’ teaching about God. It would take some time for the disciples to understand what it meant that Jesus was the Son of God. It is certain that the understanding of Jesus’ divinity, while exploding into early Christian consciousness and experience, was not immediately clear. On three occasions in John’s Gospel, we are told that “his disciples did not understand these things at first” (12:16) or that “his disciples remembered” (2:17, 22) only after his resurrection. Even though Jesus’ sonship was made known to his disciples during his life, this did not lead directly to an understanding that Jesus was God.
When the realization of the true nature of the revelation in Jesus Christ dawned on the church, the nature of God became even clearer: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The experience of God’s love became known through God offering as savior God’s own Son. What more did that mean about the activity and nature of God and the Son? What did it mean that Jesus offered his disciples the Holy Spirit to comfort and teach them?
Paul, having never met the earthly Jesus, nevertheless through his encounter with the risen Lord and the growing church could speak of his experience of “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.” Grace, love and communion: this was the nature of God, not because Paul had created a new image or reality of God, but because Paul had experienced God as love, grace and fellowship. It was not that Judaism prior did not know and experience God’s mercy and grace—as Moses expresses it in the Book of Exodus, “the Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” It was just that with the revelation of Jesus Christ, Jesus’ disciples knew they had experienced God-with-them. How would they make sense of this reality?
In understanding the attributes of God as grace, love and communion, they not only had a sense of God’s continuity with the revelation of the past, but in ascribing these attributes to God, the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ, a new way of understanding the nature of God and the reality of God was forced upon them by the inexorable reality of experience. The Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon would hundreds of years later try to make sense of the reality attested to in Scripture by Jesus, Paul and the other New Testament authors, but it is important to know that in the mystery of the Cross, the Resurrection, the giving of the Holy Spirit and the experience of God in their midst, the earliest Christians were attempting to be faithful to how God had sojourned among them. How God is one and three and how Jesus is both human and divine were not Christian attempts to complicate the simple divine reality but to bear witness to the truth of God, who came to dwell among them, who gave his life for them, who remained in their midst as the Holy Spirit. This was who God was, not because they could subtly define the Trinitarian nature of God, but because they experienced the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit.