Okay kids, in how many persons does God exist?

One of the reasons I so much like Colin Buchanan’s kid’s music is that he clearly agrees with me that no-one is ever too young to grasp the doctrine of the Trinity. My oldest daughter, now nine, is a bit past Colin these days, but my five-year-old and seven-year-old love listening to him. So the other day when our eldest was sick at home, I had the other two in the car and put on Colin’s Follow the Saviour. Track 15 says:

Kids: In how many persons does God exist?

Colin: In three persons!

Kids: Who are they?

Colin: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Kids: Prove it!

Colin: Ah well, in Matthew [the sound of pages rustling] chapter 28 verses 18 to 20, “Jesus came to his friends and said ‘God has made me the boss of everything and everyone, so everywhere you go, urge everybody to follow me and baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have told you. And remember this: I am going to be with you forever and ever and ever and ever!’”

I’m reasonably sure that Colin adapted this question and answer from the Westminster Shorter Catechism with proof texts, as found here. Or he could have got it from Broughton Knox, who says in his book The Everlasting God,

… if it had not been recorded in Matthew 28:19 that Jesus taught the disciples the doctrine of the Trinity, we would have to postulate that he had done so. These words of Jesus in Matthew 28:19 encapsulate the doctrine of the Trinity. The name of the Lord remains one name, yet now God is to be known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit—distinct, personal and equal.

(You can find that on page 154 of Knox’s Selected Works (Volume 1).)

Colin riffs this Trinitarian truth, based on Matthew 28:19, into a song that reassures us about God’s presence with us. The song, with a strong four-four beat, goes “Matthew 18:20, Matthew 18:20, Matthew 18:20, For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them!” (repeat three times). So Colin takes the doctrine of the Trinity to underlie our personal relationship, and our relationship with God himself. Interestingly, this is exactly what Broughton Knox also does, for in The Everlasting God, Broughton continues:

The fact that God is Trinity shows that personal relationship is basic reality, that is, that:

  1. There is nothing more ultimate than personal relationship. Being, considered in itself, is an abstraction. Ultimate, true and real being is and always has been being-in-personal-relationship.
  2. It follows that metaphysics of the Absolute or a theology of an impersonal God, such as Aristotle’s and any theology of Being which is not thought of as being-in relationship has an error at its centre.
  3. It follows that the subject matter of theology is not God, but God in his relationship, for the essence of God is in eternal relationship. Relationship with God and with one another is the subject matter of Scripture. It teaches the infallible truth inerrantly on these matters. God is Trinity eternally. The first words of the Bible are “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”, that is, revelation begins with a statement of God in relationship with our environment and ourselves.

So I am not completely sure whether Colin worked out his Trinitarian teaching by reading Broughton, by contemplating the Westminster Shorter Catechism, by thinking hard about the Athanasian Creed, or just by reading Matthew’s Gospel. But I am impressed that he thought it appropriate to fit such Trinitarian truths into 1 minute and 54 seconds in a way that my girls can enjoy, recite and sing along with. It’s a little bit Ned Flanders, but we all drove along singing it together.

7 thoughts on “Okay kids, in how many persons does God exist?

  1. Yes, we love Colin at our place, too. He has been such a great help in raising kids in the faith – and he does, rightly, expect a good deal from them.

    A couple of quirks when it comes to trinitarian theology among Colin’s works:

    – the Jesus is the Way chant that says Jesus is the ‘only way to God’ rather than the only way to the Father

    – the great little Titus 3:5 memory verse song that leaves out the Holy Spirit!

    So maybe Colin still has some ground to make up before he ranks with DB Knox or Athanasius – still, I bet he writes better tunes than them.

  2. Before we all get too carried away with the kids music and how good it is for our youngsters, let me quote from someone whom I respect greatly (if not for her expertise in children’s ministry, at least for her choice of marriage partner). Describing 5-7 year olds Stephanie Carmichael says:

    Even though many of these children are reading and writing, their vocabulary is still limited. Try to use simple vocabulary, particularly when explaining difficult concepts … They are still thinking on a concrete level, so you need to explain things on a concrete level. Limit abstract concepts, use visual aids. Remember to keep within their realm of experience.” (Their God is So BIG, page 30)

    Put yourself in the shoes of the 5-7 year old (the average one, not the certainly-well-above-average Cheng girls) with limited vocab and concrete thinking: what would they understand by “In how many persons does God exist?” Even for adults that is a curious expression, with extremely abstract concepts most adults don’t really grasp. But what will it conjure up in the mind of a 5 year old?

    “Oh, but they soak it up and one day they’ll understand it”. Maybe. But I understand the research shows that kids don’t tend to retain things they don’t understand. (I know, there’s always exceptions.) But why can’t we try to teach kids what they can understand now so that they relate to God now at their level, instead of trying to teach them as if they were adults?

    I’m not saying don’t try to explain the Trinity to kids. All I’m suggesting is that we need to teach it in an age-appropriate way, conscious of their (God-given) limitations.

  3. Every day we teach children, from the youngest age, about an abstract concept: the concept of God. Hopefully without using visual illustrations!

    The concept of the Trinity is no different. I think we’re better off just saying it, then trying to reach for a visual analogy. (I’m sure I’ve heard some odd pictures of the Trinity involving oranges or sunlight which confused the issue for me, let alone a child.)

    So I think there are some abstract concepts better just stated to a child, even if they can’t fully understand (as you point out, neither do we!). We might say they’re too young to understand the Trinity – but again, so are we.

    I explain the Trinity as clearly as I can to my 4-year old (who is fascinated by ideas like God being everywhere, living forever, etc, like many 4-year olds) to help him make sense of the Bible.

    After all, it’s only a short step from the Bible to questions like “Who is Jesus? Is he God? Is he God’s Son?”, questions it would be difficult to answer without explaining the Trinity.

    I’m thankful that Colin backs me up at this point!

  4. By the way, Ian, I should make it clear I think your wife’s book is wonderful, and have used it heaps teaching Sunday School.

    I am curious to know, how would you or she explain the Trinity in an age-appropriate way to young children?

    I can’t think of a simpler way than “3 persons in one God, not 3 gods”. I know it’s difficult to understand, but then the Trinity will always be beyond our understanding.

    Have you got any other ideas of how to explain it?

  5. The concept of the Trinity is no different. I think we’re better off just saying it, then trying to reach for a visual analogy.

    Hi Jean

    I think what I’m trying to say is more about the concreteness of the illustrations than their visual nature. It doesn’t have to be visual but it is helpful if it is concrete. (The Bible uses the concrete illustration of earthly “fathers” to help us understand God of course.)

    And my concern is also with simplifying the vocab used. I suspect your starting point with your four year old is generally not “In how many persons does God exist?”

    As I said, I’m all for teaching kids about the Trinity (as you say, how can we not?), so I don’t think we’re disagreeing.

    One useful tip (again, learnt from Stephanie) is to not assume a child has understood, but to gently quiz them so you can be sure. Not having them just parrot what you’ve said back, but probing a bit to get them to express it in their own way.

    PS We’re big Colin fans too, although our kids are teenagers now, and are stretching our understanding of abstract theological concepts these days!

  6. I am curious to know, how would you or she explain the Trinity in an age-appropriate way to young children?

    I think we would (and did with our kids and in the <a >Teaching Little Ones</a> curriculum) take the view that we will teach on the Trinity in the way that the Bible generally does. That is, it doesn’t really have a Westminster Confession type section outlining the nature of the Godhead, but rather, when we talked about Jesus we talked about him as God’s Son, and as God, and we explained that when he was on earth he was “able to do things that only God can do because he was God”. We would talk about God the Father in heaven and how he made us and loves us. We didn’t talk a lot about God the Holy Spirit, who is God living inside us and helping us, until primary age.

    Did we try to explain the Trinity as three persons in one God? Not particularly. Nor did it ever occur to our infant kids that this was a problem that needed explaining. There’s a certain amount of abstract cognitive ability a child needs before they even understand the difficulty adults can sometimes have with the idea of three-in-one.

  7. Thanks, Ian, I found that very helpful and enlightening, especially your distinction between visual and concrete (will have to think more about this), and your suggestions about how to teach children about the Trinity. I think it did come up with our 4-year old. But maybe it was me who brought it up, to try and answer one of those impossible questions:
    “Is Jesus God?” “Is Jesus God’s Son?” “Does God live in me” etc. etc.!!

Comments are closed.