A retired vicar said to me this week, ‘All wise clergy avoid preaching on Trinity Sunday’. Clearly neither he, nor I, have that wisdom as we are both scheduled to preach today.
The Holy Trinity is used to describe the Christian God as three persons yet one being: you can see before we even begin to explore further, how this could be confusing. The term is not a Biblical one – it was coined by Tertullian in the second Century AD – along with 509 new nouns, 284 new adjectives and 161 new verbs in the Latin language. As the early church began to formulate a true religion around the life and teachings of Jesus and the prophecies of what we refer to as the Old Testament regarding him, there was much to be discussed and considered. How do you make sense of God’s mystery and majesty? How do you make sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection? How do you make sense of the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit and all that those first disciples, and many disciples since, have been able to do empowered by her?
In 1894 John Richardson Illingworth declared during his Bampton Lecture at Oxford University, that,
The doctrine of the Trinity, as dogmatically elaborated, is, in fact, the most philosophical attempt to conceive of God as Personal. Not that it arose from any mere process of thinking…It was suggested by the Incarnation, considered as a new revelation about God, and thought out upon the lines indicated in the New Testament. Upon this the evidence of the Fathers is plain. They felt that they were in the presence of a fact which, so far from being the creation of any theory of the day, was a mystery – a thing which could be apprehended when revealed, but which could neitherneither be comprehended nor discovered.
Indeed looking back it seems that the development of a doctrine of the Holy Trinity grew out of a Christalogical understanding of Jesus: as theologians of the day sought to scour the Scriptures in order to make sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they learned more about his personality as Son of God, but also that of the Holy Spirit and God the Father.
Of course there were disagreements along the way and in order to banish heresies, the Nicene Creed was created as a definitive description of the Christian faith:
WE BELIEVE in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
This was now the final word on what is and what isn’t ‘Christianity’: if you can ascribe to the creed you belong to the faith. If not, well…..
Of course along the way those heresies had to be nullified, and St Nicholas, patron saint of children and model for Father Christmas, was fully involved.
Arius was one of those whose understanding of Jesus was heretical. I am sure that he was well meaning, but in trying to get his head around these new mysteries he suggested that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit were created by God the Father and therefore not equals, and denied their deity. Legend says that when Arius began to sing a hymn in accordance with this belief, Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, reached the end of his tether and promptly punched him, knocking him to the floor! Now who’s naughty or nice?
Modalism (or Sabellianism) was another heresy disputed by the Council. Sabellius, stated that there was only one God, so far so good, who had three different roles. This doesn’t sound too bad, however, it is quite clear in the New Testament that Father, Son and Holy Spirit weren’t just different roles played by the same person, after all they had conversations with each other, but different identities.
Despite these (mis)understandings being disputed as heresy, we still fall into the trap of using analogies which fit into their teachings rather than a true understanding of the Holy Trinity:
The analogy of a woman as Mother, Sister and Daughter recognises than 1 being can have three identities – but there is no relationship between them. Water can transform into liquid, solid and gas, but cannot be all three at the same time. A shamrock may have three elements to its leaf, but those elements do not have distinct identities.
So how do we get our heads around this ‘mystery’ of faith?
My starting point is usually the Bible, but as mentioned earlier, the term didn’t even exist until much later. Throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, but increasingly in the new, we see evidence of the Trinity. Right back in the opening paragraphs of the first book of the Bible when God speaks humanity into being:
Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.
Genesis 1: 26
also at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, as he is baptised the heavens open and the Father’s voice is heard declaring that Jesus is his Son, whilst the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove alights upon him.
Perhaps the biggest question when contemplating the Holy Trinity is ‘does it matter?’ Well, without the Father, Son and Holy Spirit being one, the power of Jesus’ death on the cross is negated: only God is a powerful enough sacrifice to cleanse the world from sin and do battle with death. Jesus and God the Father must be one. If the Holy Spirit is not also God, then we really are quite bereft without her presence in our lives. Jesus promised never to leave us nor forsake us and that he would send the Holy Spirit in his place.
Looking at the passages set for today, perhaps the key to our understanding does come from the Scriptures after all: in John 3, the gospel reading set for today, Jesus declares that,
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. John 3:16
As the American Episcopal Bishop said at the Royal Wedding, Love is the way.
For there to be love, there needs to be someone to love and someone to be loved by. At every wedding I conduct we begin with a Sentence of Scripture:
God is love and those who live in love, live in God: and God lives in them.
1 John 4:16
The Holy Trinity enables a relationship to exist between each of the three persons of the Trinity: it is not about what they do, but how they love. We are so bound up with doing in our culture that we forget to simply be in relationship with each other as God created us to be – with himself and with others too. When we greet each other (at least in Britain) we ask How do you do? and if we are meeting someone for the first time we often ask What do you do?
Perhaps if those bishops and their forerunners hadn’t been so busy trying to do God’s business in interpreting God’s identity and had spent more time focusing on following God’s teaching about love, there wouldn’t have been the need for an unholy dust up at the council meeting; and wary clergy wouldn’t find themselves taxed each year with the challenge of preaching about the Holy Trinity?
Something to watch:
Something to think about:
- What is your favourite way of describing the Holy Trinity?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses in your analogy?
- What can the passage from Genesis and the baptism passages teach us about the Holy Trinity?
- Can you think of any other Bible passages that allude to the Holy Trinity?
Something to do:
Engage with my favourite allegory of the Holy Trinity: Trillionaire Shortbread!
Something to pray:
mighty and mysterious, before all, within all, above all, we would more truly honour you, more completely know you and more faithfully serve you.
Give us today, then,
a fuller sense of your greatness, a deeper awareness of your presence and a firmer understanding of your will, that we may worship, love and serve you in spirit and truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord.