The Trinity

The ideas below were included in a sermon given at Red Hill UC about 30 years ago, at which Prof. Robert Anderson, ex-principal at the Uniting Church’s Theological Hall and internationally-known biblical scholar, happened to be present.  After the service he suggested I publish my sermon because it was “the most enlightening explication of the Trinity” he had ever heard. While this is not the sermon I preached then, the ideas at the core remain the same.

Creation at Work  

with reference to  Isaiah 6:1-8,  Romans 8:12-17 and John 3:1-17

(it may be helpful to the reader to read the above Bible passages first)

“Is there a God?” asked the Marxist.  “Certainly not the kind people are thinking of,” said the Master.  “What people?” asked the Marxist.  The Master replied, “Everyone.”      (Anthony deMello, S.J.)

It seems an appropriate story with which to begin a sermon on this particular day in the church year: Trinity Sunday. Oscar Wilde once said: “God and other artists are always a little obscure.” True enough, but sometimes it seems the Christian church has endeavoured to ensure the obscurity remains by inventing the Doctrine of the Trinity.  This limerick by the Rev. Bruce Prewer is more profound than it first seems.

There was an old saint up in Bright
who loved God with all of her might,
when asked to explain
and make Trinity plain,
she said “I get lost in the light.”

Down through the years, preachers have created all sorts of analogies to help people understand the seeming paradox created when one tries to define God as three yet one.  It is often approached as puzzle to be solved, but Justo Gonzalez appropriately reminds us, “Trinity is a mystery, not a puzzle.  Love is a mystery, a crossword is a puzzle.  You try to solve a puzzle, but you stand in awe before a mystery.” Analogies are always either less than satisfying, or else, in their simplicity, give a false sense of understanding.

  • Some see the Trinity as church dogma to be swallowed whole, without question, if one wishes to be a ‘proper’ Christian.
  • Some see the Trinity as Greek-influenced metaphysical speculation, full of subtleties, but quite sterile and irrelevant today.
  • Some, who are outside the faith, see the Trinity as religious superstition dressed up in ecclesiastical pomposity.
  • Some see the Trinity as the true definition of God, leading us to the core Mystery that will always defy our human reason..
  • Some see the Trinity as a celebration of the activity of God as witnessed in the Scriptures, and reflecting the human experience of God.

I fall into the last category. I will call it ‘The Trinity Dance,’ for it emphasises the energetic, purposeful, beautiful activity of God among us: action, rather than a doctrine to be recited, revered, or made the object of lofty intellectual debate.  Perichoresis is the word used by the Greek Orthodox church to describe this.

However we understand it, we are fortunate it is not a requirement to believe in the Trinity in order to be considered a Christian. You won’t be tested on it as you leave the service, and excommunicated if your opinion doesn’t measure up to some doctrine of belief.  The Trinity is meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive; i.e. the Doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to describe the experience of God, rather than a statement about what God actually is. It exists to help us talk about our faith, not to define and delimit it.

There is a temptation, and I certainly have felt it very strongly at times in my own spiritual journey, to ignore this notion of God in three persons, and store it among the other relics of Christian antiquity that no longer have relevance in a modern world view.  However, I think the experiences that gave rise to a trinitarian view of God in the first place may still speak to us, and lead us further into understanding how God relates to us.  However confusing it may be, the Trinity has depicted a God who is part of our world and our being, rather than remote, terrifying and other.    I think it is particularly relevant to go beyond using the Trinity to talk about God, and use it to talk about us.  It is all well and good to be able to talk about God, triune or otherwise, but it is only so much extraneous knowledge unless it applies to you and me.

The beautiful thing about the Bible readings I’ve selected is that they allow us to go back to the roots of the concept of the Trinity, and help us to understand the notion in terms of the biblical concept of inspiration. The root word of inspiration is, of course, spirit.  To inspire is to ‘in-spirit’; to fill with spirit. I suspect that few people have any problem understanding the Holy Spirit as an aspect of the experience of God.  God as Spirit seems to be a natural understanding, because spirit can be everywhere at once, yet invisible, just like a common notion of God, and doesn’t have to have a separate identity or personality. The Holy Spirit part of the Trinity is a natural.

The problem for the early church – and it was a very major problem, indeed – was Jesus; if he was divine, how to fit him into the existing belief in one God and one God only.  There is nothing in the New Testament that suggests Jesus did anything to make himself the object of the worship, which he, as a Jew, would believe belonged only to the God he called Father.  He centred his own message, his work and his life in the One God of his forefathers, the Holy Other whom Isaiah met in the temple.  The close of proximity of Trinity Sunday to the celebration of coming of God’s Spirit at Pentecost tells us where we can find the unity that will keep us firmly entrenched in the belief in the One God: in the process of inspiration, i.e. the process of filling with God as Spirit.

Often (probably too often) in process of believing the Gospel story, Christianity results, for some, in the replacement of the former Jewish God-centredness with Christ-centredness.  Allegiance is transferred from the first person of the Trinity, with whom we are out of touch, to the second person, who is tangible and understandable. We jump from the first paragraph of the Apostle’s Creed to the second, and the oneness of God is lost in the process, as people start praying to Jesus instead of to God. It is a problem brought about when we hear the Doctrine of the Trinity saying: ‘This is what God is;’ rather than, ‘This is what God is like.’  But of course the concept of Trinity does not really change our focal point from God to Jesus. It is merely portraying Jesus in the light of what we believe about God.

The trinitarian framework is trying to concentrate our attention on what G-O-D is doing in the world through God’s agent, whom we call the Christ; not that Christ is God, but Christ represents what God is doing in the world.  To see this is to understand the issue to be one of spirituality, that is, a question of God-filling.  This is why Jesus says to Nicodemus, “unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

He went on to explain that being born again is equal to being “born of the Spirit.” (Listen to the wind, Nicodemus, the answer is blowing in the wind.)  When one is taken over by God, it is as though he becomes a newly born person in the image of God. It is a process of re-creation.  “How can this happen?” asks Nicodemus.  Jesus then says, in effect: put everything you have seen or heard about me in the light of the traditions of our faith. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  But note that the focus remains on God and what God does through the spirit, which activates the Christ image in Jesus.

We must not try to bend the symbolism of the words “only son,” “sent” and “saved through him” into arguments for an exclusive claim to divine revelation or salvation solely through Jesus of Nazareth.  The “only son” symbol is a classical image for the anointed one, God’s active agent, Messiah or Christ, in whomever it appears at the moment.  The imagery communicated by the words, “only son,” is not a theory of metaphysical reality, but it is a framework for seeing Jesus as a teacher sent from God.  Saying Jesus is the Christ is one thing; it central to Christian belief.  Saying that the Christ is nothing or no one other than Jesus is quite another.

Spirituality, as Nicodemus learned, is the key to an appropriate understanding of Christ-centred belief, because it focuses not on the particular person who is the Christ, but on G-O-D as present and active in a person – any person whom God chooses – and, hence, it is still the One God who is at the centre. We cannot use this imagery to say that Jesus is God.  Nor does the Doctrine of the Trinity say, ‘Jesus is God.’

The reading from Romans nicely ties up the understanding of this spirituality to which I have been referring.  Here Paul enlarges the gospel of Christ by taking the image of ‘Christ’ beyond its historical identification with one person and one series of events, and applying it to the interpretation of every Christian’s life which is given over to God’s Spirit: “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom.8:14).  This gives some understanding to that oft-used, but rarely understood, Pauline phrase: being ‘in Christ.’  The same Spirit, or indwelling God-ness, that was in Jesus, and defined him as Christ for us, is also God’s gift to us.  With the gift comes the call:  to be the Christ to others.

The concept of Trinity has been crippled from the beginning by our language. The word, ‘god’ is a noun; i.e., words applied to people or places or things.  But G-O-D is a dynamic that requires more than nouns.  While in theological college, I decided that God really must be a verb.  (I was smugly self-satisfied with this revelation, only to find out later that a noted philosopher had said the same thing long before.)  But to conceive of God as an action rather than a thing, an ongoing process, the unfolding pattern of the universe, the growing of humanity toward the image in which it was created, and the urging of love which propels us, is to see the Trinity as very relevant to who we are.

The concept of the Trinity becomes the definition for meaning in our lives: in what we are becoming and the means by which we are becoming.  Not being able to go beyond the confines of our language, I still have to rely on nouns, but they cannot totally capture the image in my mind of that which is goal, process and the power behind the process, as well.  So my offering to the understanding of trinitarian theology is this:

First, the word G-O-D defines the ONE unifying purpose of the created order, the unfolding will of the creator or, if you prefer, father/mother. It is creation’s gene pool.  This will is the pattern for the ultimate perfection or wholeness of the creation and all its parts including you and me, and this will is ONE.

Second, the word G-O-D shows us the divine pattern for humanity in particular, i.e. what the word G-O-D means when the pattern is impressed into a human life, which we have called the Son.

Finally, the word G-O-D describes for us the means by which we become part of the pattern: the urging and empowering of an inner resource which we call Spirit.

In short, the Trinity defines God as why we are becoming (Father or Creator), what we are becoming (Son) and the means by which we become (Spirit).  Let me end with a warning, however.  Any understanding of God, trinitarian or otherwise, is always going to be incomplete, inadequate and, if taken to extremes, misleading. Remember, it is a doctrine created in order to safeguard an experience of God, not to define God.

Tony de Mello tells the story of the Master who would insist that the final barrier to our attaining God was the word and concept ‘God’.  This so infuriated the local priest that he came in a huff to argue the matter out with the Master.

“But surely, the word ‘God’ can lead us to God?” said the priest.

“It can,” said the Master calmly.

“Well, how can something help and yet be a barrier?”

Said the Master, “the donkey that brings you to the door is not the means by which you enter the house.”

Those who found this article stimulating may also like to read a sermon from Trinity Sunday 2020.

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