Teaching the Trinity to Kids

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So has Colin Buchanan's mixing of a talk of mine on the Trinity made me a celeb, as Derek and Gabe now claim?  Maybe.  But surely only in the 3 to 10 year old bracket.   Gabe's daughter will no doubt testify that I have been a celebrity to that age bracket for a long time now.  And there's no money and little in the way of social prestige there.  Not even enough to buy me a bling cross, have a gold tooth fitted or pay for some 'urban ink' which, Derek tells me, are all vital if I am to make it in the rap industry.

There is a serious point to the piece, however, and it has nothing to do with bling, gold teeth, or 'hanging with my homies' as I believe the phrase has it, at least according to 'my soul brother,' Colin.  Rather, it has to do with teaching children about the Trinity.  This is important but is generally not done well - possibly because adults are not taught well on the topic either and are thus ill-equipped for the task.

First, years of teaching 4 to 6 year old kids in SS has convinced my wife and me that music is a great means of helping children memorize Bible verses and doctrines.   I know nothing about the psychology of this, I have simply observed that words put to music stick in young minds more easily than words on their own.

Second, we have also been convinced that much of the task of a children's SS teacher is teaching them forms of sound words.  Young children do not generally think in abstractions; thus a lot of theological content simply passes them by; but the teacher can instill in them knowledge of a form of sound words which subsequent intellectual growth under the preaching of the word will flesh out.  The danger is that young minds can be taken captive early on by bad pictures; and these bad pictures then distort what they hear preached and taught as they grow up.

The Trinity is, in many ways, the prime example of this.  Indeed, I have heard more well-meaning but heretical kids talks on the Trinity than on anything else.  Most are simply modalist: 'God is like water, ice and steam' and 'He is like a washing machine with three different settings' are two of the more memorable disasters I can recall.  
This kind of heresy is not just taught to children.  Some years ago I was teaching my Ancient Church class at the seminary and was working through a text by Origen.  Admittedly, this is perhaps not the clearest and most inspiring material but I did not expect what happened next.  An older student (who was already, I believe, ordained) raised his hand and declared that 'This Trinity stuff is all nonsense.  Last Sunday I simply told my congregation that God the Father came down and died on the cross at Calvary.'.  Praxeas lives!  Where are you, Tertullian, for we have need of thee?  And I wonder if this person started down this path when some well-meaning SS teacher told him God was like an actor who takes different parts in different acts of the play, or a washing machine, or H2O?

That evening I sat down to dinner and asked my kids (8 and 6 at the time): 'Okay boys: how many gods are there?'  Looking at me as if I had lost my marbles they responded in unison 'There is but one God.'  'In how many persons does this one God exist?' 'In three persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.' 'Boys,' I said, 'you have a better grasp of Trinitarian theology than some ordained Presbyterian ministers.'

Now, I am not fooling myself that my sons had all the nuances of sophisticated Trinitarianism.  It was simply that they had learned the catechism when they were small.  This then gave them a sound conceptual vocabulary which, over the subsequent years, they have been able to flesh out as they have sat under the sound preaching of the word each week.  No misleading natural analogy or well-intentioned but ultimately heretical model has ever gripped their imagination.

In teaching kids something like the Trinity, it is important to give them the right ideas, or at least the right basic vocabulary,  from the word go.  A silly rap tune which hammers home that God is three and God is one is, well, a silly rap tune; but if it avoids misleading natural analogies and fixes in the minds of those who listen a form of sound words, rather than a form of unsound words, then it has surely done a good thing even if, as my wife tells me `It sounds terrible!'

Posted August 12, 2011 @ 8:44 AM by Carl Trueman
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