I have been asked on more than one occasion to explain how God can be three persons while remaining one God. These inquirers would believe in a triune God, I was assured, if only I could show them how the Trinity was possible. There have been many attempts, through both analogies and diagrams, to do just that. But most have proven to be less than convincing, and virtually all theologically problematic.
John Wesley believed this is the wrong question. “I believe this fact also (if I may use the expression) — that God is Three and One. But the manner, how, I do not comprehend….” The reason for Wesley is that the triune nature of God has been revealed, but the manner in which this is possible has not. “But would it not be absurd … to deny the fact because I do not understand the manner?” he asks (On the Trinity, §15).
Believing the “fact” is especially important because the Trinity, “far from being a point of indifference, is a truth of last importance. It enters into the very heart of Christianity; it lies at the root of all vital religion” (On the Trinity, §17). This is because the promise of the gospel itself is premised on both Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit being one with the Father, equally divine and all one God.
Wesley had little interest in “speculative divinity,” of which trying to explain the “how” of the Trinity would be a prime example. He was passionate about “practical divinity” for which the “fact” of the Trinity was essential. To put it differently, Wesley was not concerned to describe, even if he could, the inward nature of the immanent Trinity, but had high interest in the work of the Triune God in creation and redemption, that is, in the economic Trinity.
John Wesley makes only infrequent explicit references to the Trinity, but his theology is Trinitarian throughout. He can, for example, speak of prevenient grace as part of the convicting work of the Spirit, justification as the work of Christ for us, and sanctification as the work of the Spirit in us. Yet he can also speak of all of these as works of God. One significant impetus toward trinitarianism was Wesley’s emphasis on the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.
Charles Wesley’s hymns make this trinitarian logic more explicit. Consider the hymn “Maker, in Whom We Live.” There Charles gives praise to “the Maker” for “thy creating grace,” to the “Incarnate deity” for “thy redeeming grace,” and to the “Spirit of Holiness” for “thine heart-renewing power.” The hymn concludes with eschatological promise and praise to the “Eternal, Triune God” (The United Methodist Hymnal, #88).
In the hymn “Sinners Turn, Why Will You Die,” Charles Wesley has the question asked by each person of the Trinity. In the opening verse, “God, your Maker, asks you why, God, who did your being give, made you himself, that you might live.” Then in the third, “God the Spirit, asks you why; he who all your lives hath strove, wooed you to embrace his love.” The trinitarian nature of redemption is clearly displayed in these verses.
Trinitarian themes are also found in later verses. In verse five we read, “You, whom he ordained to be transcripts of the Trinity….” This is a striking description of the image of God in which humanity was created. Although that image is lost due to sin, the Wesleys believed the purpose of salvation was to restore persons to the image of God. The implication here is that restoration enables persons to love God and others as we have been loved by the triune God.
Even more powerfully, in verse eight we are exhorted: “See, the suffering God appears! Jesus weeps! Believe his tears.” Jesus is the God who suffers and dies out of love for us (The United Methodist Hymnal, #346).
The Trinitarian theme of the passion of Jesus as the suffering of God is not an isolated one in Charles Wesley’s hymns. In one of the most moving, he exclaims, “O Love divine, what hast thou done! The immortal God hath dies for me! The Father’s co-eternal Son bore all my sins upon the tree. Th’ immortal God for me hath died: My Lord, my Love, is crucified!” (The United Methodist Hymnal, #287).
For the Wesleys, without knowing God as the Trinity we would be unable to know the depth of God’s love.