The Creative Number Three
Naoki Higashida is a “non-verbal Autistic.” He communicates by pointing to letters on a letter pad. He is also an author of two books; “The Reason I Jump” and “Fall Down 7 Times Get up 8.” I read an interview of him in Time Magazine (July 13, 2017.) His response to this question caused me to smile and propose an alternative answer. But first, the question and his answer:
What’s your favorite number?
I’ve never really thought about my favorite, but if pushed, my answer would be 3. The number 1 is the most important. It feels like proof that something is there. Then again, zero is the most amazing discovery. The concept of nothingness is proof of human civilization. After 1 comes 2 in order of importance. The number 2 lets us divide things and put numbers in order. These three numbers (0, 1 and 2) would have been sufficient. As a number, 3 is enchanting. It was created even though it wasn’t needed. Perhaps it was born out of creativity?” (Emphasis mine)
I absolutely loved his answer. “As a number, 3 is enchanting. It was created even though it wasn’t needed.” That caused me to think of the beauty of the many images available in Christian art and iconography related to the Holy Trinity— which of course, depends on the the number 3! But even as those images came to my mind I was then further challenged by his rhetorical question, “Perhaps it was born out of creativity?”
There is a reserved word for “create” in Hebrew that is only used by God. This word first appears in Genesis 1:1, “In beginning created God the heavens and the earth.” (My literal translation.) Now, I understand that “create” and “creativity” are not exactly the same word. But logically, how much more creative can an act of God be than creating the world we know, and its life and its people?
God emphasizes this at the end of the Book of Job when he challenges Job’s faith and obedience when demanding of God an answer to his struggles:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me, if you know so much.
Who determined its dimensions
and stretched out the surveying line?
What supports its foundations,
and who laid its cornerstone as the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
I don’t think it takes too much work to assert that God is a creative God who surprises and amazes us.
My answer to Naoki then, is that the creative genius behind the number 3 is The God who chooses to reveal himself in a 1-in-3 and 3-in-1 mystery that the Church Fathers eventually described in a word: the Trinity.
Consider first this well-known blessing of St. Paul in 2 Corinthians:
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”
(2 Cor 13:14)
The New Testament never uses the word Trinity but its definition is illustrated in the blessing even as it is more literally stated in Matthew:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19)
The importance of the doctrine is explained again by St. Paul:
Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see— such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together. Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything. For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.
To emphasize this witness, let’s return to Genesis 1:
The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.
So, we have God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit all gathered in one place.
Remember that St. Paul was trained as a Pharisee— he had been raised and trained in a strict “one” God belief but now has no trouble at all in expressing his faith by placing Jesus in the original creating act of God.
What the Trinity does for us that is different from a unitarian form or simple monotheism is to invite us into the creative relationship with God. Rather than seeing God as remotely sovereign and separate, Christians are baptized into the creative relationship of the Trinity. Consider Luther's explanation of the Creed, divided into its Trinitarian parts.
The first article is Creation, and there is that key word, father. We have a relationship with the maker of heaven and earth. This is the significance of the Lord's Prayer beginning with "Our Father." Baptized into the Name of the Father we are children of God, created into his image and likeness and given an original blessing that is restored in baptism.
The second article is appropriately named Redemption. Jesus is the Son (relationship again) who is the first born of all creation, the one through whom all things were created, born of Mary, the Lamb who takes the sin of the world away and the first-born of the dead.
Baptized into the name of the Son we are redeemed from hell, death and damnation and are given new life in Jesus. In him we have life and life abundantly. No longer slaves to sin we are set free. We sometimes talk of a “personal relationship” with God— this is possible because He becomes man for us to walk with us and bear the Cross and shed His blood for ours.
The third article brings us the gift of Sanctification-- a gift of the Holy Spirit. I can't think of anything more creative than a word that means "spirit, breath and wind" all
at once and is God's presence from our creation to our resurrection.
Think of Ezekiel's valley of dry bones... "Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live." And they do live because the Spirit has the creative power of life!
To take away the three-in-one and one-in-three is to leave alternatives that only allow worse consequences. In so many words, when we try to rationally use our intelligence to take away the mystery of the Trinity we undo the creativity of God.
To make Jesus just human is to lose the Cross. He now becomes just another prophet executed. Now we have no concept of grace. We now no longer have a relationship with God, who becomes a judge and law giver without grace. There is no assurance of salvation. Our works are now our works and we live on a scale without certainty of its weight.
To lose the Holy Spirit is to lose the in-dwelling of God in our own souls and spirit. Again God becomes remote and either powerless or so separate and sovereign that we can only plea that God be merciful or pray to be left alone!
Sometimes I hear the platitude, "We all pray to the same God." I, of course, disagree. The fathers of the church and the confessors of the reformation were very careful to formulate a scriptural understanding of God because of the consequences. The gift of Holy Scripture and its statements, expositions and illustrations of how God desires His relationships with us was given for a purpose. Our feelings and emotions are rather pitiful compared to the faithful study of teaching of the church from present back to the Reformation back to the Church Fathers to the apostles to Jesus and even back to Moses. These witnesses are not glibly dismissed because of the pluralism and multiculturalism of our current era. It is rather, for us, to proclaim no matter the disharmony with our current culture.
Let me conclude with a classic quote from Luther:
“These are the three persons and one God, who has given himself to us all wholly and completely, with all that He is and has. The Father gives Himself to us, with heaven and earth and all the creatures, in order that they may serve us and benefit us. But this gift has become obscured and useless through Adam’s fall. Therefore, the Son Himself subsequently gave Himself and bestowed all His works, sufferings, wisdom, and righteousness, and reconciled us to the Father, in order that restored to life and righteousness, we might also know and have the Father and His gifts.”
Notice to what purpose the creative energy of God is made— to give us his gifts. To ensure that we could live within the center of God’s love he created a three-in-one and one-in-three form, even though as Naoki points out, it wasn’t needed. Oh, but it was!
In the name of the Blessed and Holy Trinity,