When a preaching rota comes around at this time of year ministers look with trepidation at the Sunday marked Trinity in fear that it might be their turn to say something new on this difficult doctrine of the church. Yet that shouldn’t be the case really, as every time we talk about God we are talking about the one true God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In every act of God we see the Trinity at work. I was quite pleased to be on the rota for today as it gives me the opportunity to follow up some of the thoughts from the confirmation group earlier this year and what I said last year at the parade service.
Now it has to be said that all of us struggle somewhat from time to time with this difficult concept of the nature of God the three in one. We should not, I must say, beat ourselves up because we find the trinity a difficult doctrine to understand. Many people throughout the history of the church have found this concept of a God who is three in one difficult to comprehend. Indeed it is often a stumbling bloke in conversations with Muslims and Jews who question the church on this very matter. How can we say there is one God who is 3 persons. Do we worship one God or three. To the Jews and Muslims it seems very much like we worship three, yet we maintain that we believe in one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We hold fast to the 10 commandments and Jesus’ summary of the law “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and thou shalt Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind and with all thy strength. This is the first commandment.” We can not escape from the basic belief in the Christian (as well as the Jewish and Islamic) faith that there is one God, and one only. So how do we explain our belief in the triune God?
(Now, before you all switch off, I must say that I have kept the technical theological vocabulary down to the bear minimum because that is the way my mind works best – and it is the only way I can understand the complexities of God.)
It may help to briefly look back at what the doctrine of the trinity was trying to guard the church against, as it is often because of controversies that the doctrines of the church are set out or explored; and then to understand how the trinity informs our lives as Christians today.
There is nothing in the Bible that explicitly refers to God the Holy Trinity, only that God revealed himself in a threefold experience of the one God who touches creation; and yet there was a lot of debate in the first few centuries of the church to guard against errors in this matter.
One such error, Adoptionism, was the view that Jesus was a prophet whom God adopted as son and inspired with the spirit. The spirit is simply taken as a way of talking about the activity of the one God seen to be active in the life of Jesus.
But if that were the case what does that mean in terms of the God whom we believe in. Adoptionism suggests that God dealt with humanity from a distance and didn’t get involved with the world to redeem it, a God who keeps his hands clean, sending a human whom he had adopted as an ambassador to redeem the world, whilst he stays at a safe distance. Yet, our faith is one that is centred on a God who genuinely gets involved with the mess of the world, and the mess of our lives’ in order to redeem it. A God of self-sacrifice, a perfect sacrifice made once for all upon the cross; not a God who chooses a reasonably good human whom he can adopt as a son to be a sacrifice to a distant God.
Another error, Modalist Monarchianism, held the view that the one God appears Trinitarian from the outside, from the view of creation, but these faces of God are simply different outward appearances of the one God who is internally undifferentiated, or in other words there is no inner Trinitarian life of God. Sabellius, who was excommunicated in 320 made clear these claims. He argued that God the Father ceased to be the father at the Incarnation, instead becoming the Son, and God the Son ceased to be the Son at the ascension. Yet to believe this would mean that there is no real relation between Father and son in the life of God as they are different modes of being, ceasing to be one thing to become another. A bit like illustrating God with water; saying he starts as ice, melts to become water, and is boiled to become steam. God is seen in three different ways, but only in one way at a time.
This view throws up some awkward questions, like who was Jesus praying to? Or whose voice came from heaven at Jesus’ baptism; or, for a more in-depth thought, what did or do the modalists make of John’s prolog to his gospel. “In the beginning was the word, and the was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” To argue that the one God changed his mode of being would be difficult to sustain and would deny any real relationship in the life of God.
Towards a better understanding of the trinity:
When we begin to think of the real relations in the trinity we begin to see the wood for the trees, so to speak; as the trinity is about relations rather than individual aspects of God. One of the confusing factors here is our use of the word persons: the persons of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit being one God. How can three persons be one God we ask? Well, I’m afraid we have to turn to church history again to understand this. The fourth century Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory, Basil, and Gregory of Nyssa) had a very different understanding of person than we do today. They understood person as “a being as” or “a being in” communion/relationship; whereas the 21st century post modern idea of person is an individual who may or may not be in relation. So the trinity is about the 3 persons, the 3 relations, not about 3 individuals.
Think for a moment about who you are in terms of relationships. For example, I am a husband, father, and a son; I am me in all these relationships, not three separate individuals, but one in relationship. This example is fine to some degree, but does not fully enable us to understand the subsisting relations of God being self-grounded; relations that are not dependent on something else. But the example does remind us that the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the names that name relations within God. God is one, but the three persons, the 3 relations, mutually indwell one another. This unity of God as persons in relations, of being in one another can be regarded as a sort of eternal dance in which the dancers are only dancers because they hold onto the others, and the dance is only the dance because of the linked hands of the dancers.
To look at the trinity in this way has a profound effect upon the church and our understanding of the Christian faith. The relations of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit suggests a community of equals. The Son is not subordinate to the Father, neither is the Spirit; all are equal. Therefore if the inner life of God is a society of equals, then human society needs to reflect that life in democracy, equality and freedom. Liberation and Feminist theologians have made good use of this understanding of God in recent years to work for a society of equality where all are brothers and sisters in Christ, and no-one is more valuable because of class, race, or gender. This principle is an important aspect of our lives as God’s people trying to follow the example of Christ in this place and at this time as we see all people as our equals, all precious in the eyes of God, and our eyes too.
In the Trinity we see that the three persons are eternally giving themselves to the others, completely and absolutely in a dynamic of love that overflows into creation and redemption. If we look carefully we can see this dynamic love of God the Holy Trinity in every saving act, and I’m sure that over the next few weeks in this season of Trinity, we will see some of those as we recall the activity of God in creation and redemption. But if you want some examples now, think about the creation stories; there we see God the Creator Father, the Spirit hovering over the waters, the Son (the word) bringing things to life; or look at the Baptism or Crucifixion of Christ at home to see the life, the dance of the trinity being lived out.
So, the Holy Trinity may seem like a difficult doctrine of the church to understand, and indeed the character of God is richer and stranger than we can imagine, and that is why we talk of the mystery of God; but if viewed not as three individual aspects of the one God, but as the names that name relations within God we can begin to make sense of that eternal dance of the Godhead where the three persons are eternally giving themselves to the other, completely and absolutely in a dynamic of love. A godhead of love that is equal, creative and redeeming, indwelling in one another and in us, and so we can too can join in with the words of the famous Trinity Hymn St. Patrick’s breastplate:
I bind unto myself the name, the strong name of the trinity,
By invocation of the same, the Three in one and one in Three,
Of whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word.
Praise to the Lord of my salvation; Salvation is of Christ the Lord.
Creation date : 10/06/2007 - 22:27
Last update : 10/06/2007 - 22:30
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