There is but one living and true God, ever- lasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Pray for me as I venture to speak in the name of the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
To give serious thought to the Holy Trinity in a church that is little turned to theology is a salutary thing to do. But that is our assignment today, so let’s begin with the commonplace and move to the mysterious.
All of us here say that we have faith – that we trust certain beliefs that we hope are true. Specifically we say that we both trust and obey the God who was incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth. The standard translation of Hebrews (11:1) says that faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” I think this means that faith is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen – the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us. But this confident assurance is absent any palpable evidence – no corporeal or substantial being – and that is troublesome for all of us who have been brought up in a materialistic culture in which real things need substance and matter we can see and hold. But God is not a thing. Indeed, God is not a being at all – an object or an idea that has a state of existence – and that poses a real chal-lenge to our sense of what is real. So if God is not a thing, a being of some sort, how do we best speak of him? I suggest we think of God as event and not being – a God who acts – an event, a work, specifically a work of love from creation onwards – an event similar to the vows of Holy Matrimony that promise this man and this woman – these 2 persons – will become one – and that theirs is a unity that is not arithmetic but organic. Think about that because a unity not arithmetic but organic appears to be precisely the event embedded in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Sim-ply put, this is the doctrine that our hope and destiny lies in the three-in-one Christian God – who from the beginning created and continues to preside over all creation – who revealed himself in Jesus – and who stays connected and present to his creation in the form of Spirit. However com-plex and even impenetrable, I find that portrait wonderfully comforting and reassuring. So I invite you to join me for the next few minutes in pondering again the mystery that is our triune God.
Beyond that, Trinity Sunday is an emphatic reminder that our Christian vocation is proba-bably the most unoriginal work in the world. We don’t create anything – our job is just to elabo-rate the gospel as the Church has received it – to love and serve God and our neighbors by keep-ing the ‘faith given once and for all to his people’ (Jude 1:3) and by celebrating the special graces of the seven sacraments. So Trinity Sunday is a special challenge not only to our understanding but also to our faith. Other doctrines may have received more attention, but none of them have boggled our collective minds more than this impenetrable mystery.
And Jesus is the reason why. The brief backstory is this. The word ‘trinity’ did not enter the Church’s vocabulary until the 3rd c., so like other doctrines its history evolved over time. Early Christians acknowledged that Jesus was fully human but that his name signified a divine identity. In Luke [1:31] an angel tells Mary to name her child Jesus because “He will be great and…called the Son of the Most High”. In Matthew [1:21] an angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins”. In addition there are 198 names and titles for Jesus in the Bible. So from his birth onwards salvific attributes accompanied the human person named Jesus – and during the first 4 centuries of the Christian movement that led to raging Christological controversies among the Church Fathers. The essential questions were ‘who-is-Jesus’ and ‘who is who’ in the Godhead and several advocates rose to the challenge.
The cast of characters included Sabellius who taught that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were one and the same – just three different modes or aspects of one monadic God. A modern version is that God is like water – liquid, solid, steam. Arius emphasized the Father’s deity above the Son’s, and taught that the Son was neither fully human nor fully deity and therefore not God but a demi-god – a being literally suspended between heaven and earth. Adoptionism taught that Jesus was adopted as God’s Son at either his baptism, his resurrection, or his ascension. And the Ebionites held that Jesus was an ordinary human being who was chosen to become God’s Son because of his sinless devotion to the will of God. Of course, there is some scriptural evidence and several valid reasons for each of these claims – but all of these contentious arguments were eventually declared heretical at the Council of Nicea in 352 which formulated what we now say: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father”.
When the BCP refers to the Holy Trinity it is clear that it is talking about one person, not three. “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty…We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…(and) We believe in the Holy Spirit (who)…with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.” My experience, however, is that saying these words repeatedly tends to make them perfunctory and mindless. So to resist that tendency I sometimes omit the definite article ‘the’ when referring to Persons of the Holy Trinity – and when people ask ‘why?’ I think this strategem may be working. My reason is that speaking of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit tends to encourage some to think that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are actually 3 gods, not One. But all of us know that’s not orthodox Christian theology! Similarly, when what is called ‘trine’ baptism is performed and the candidate receives 3 different applications of water at which the priest says ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’ – again, in subtle ways, it’s easy to think that the blessings of 3 gods are being invoked. But we teach that the Holy Trinity is one God, not three gods – so if sometimes omitting the definite article helps make that point clear, I think that may be a helpful thing to do.
And this is why. Before Christianity, there were monotheistic religions and polytheistic religions – religions of one god and religions of many gods. Polytheistic religions and gods are not difficult to understand because they are linear. There is a different god for every purpose – a god for fertility, a god for basketball, a god for war, a god for rain, etc. Monotheistic religions on the other hand, like Islam and Judaism, worship only one God whom both understand to be prin-cipally a lawgiver. Islam’s last messenger, Muhammad, and Moses and the Jewish prophets pre-scribed legal decrees for human behaviors that are mandated by God. So where do Christians part ways theologically with our Muslim and Jewish friends?
Emerging from Judaism, early Christians did not abandon monotheism – but they found that, if they were to acknowledge all the evidence of God acting in their lives, they had to think of the one God in a new way. The Israelites frequently referred to God in anthropomorphic terms – in human attributes writ large. God can laugh and be angry – God can see and hear – God can talk or turn a deaf ear. In fact, the entire range of human emotions can be ascribed to God. But beyond all of the anthropomorphic references, the God of the OT is supremely thought of as the One who acts – the One who created heaven and earth – and made us in his own image. He is the One who acts to establish a covenant with his people and declares that his promises can be relied on. He punishes his children when they are faithless and disobedient – and blesses them when they are faithful and obedient. For all their talk about the mystery and majesty of God, the Israel-ites tried to characterize God in ways that are humanly understandable.
Early Christians took that understanding to a radically new place – and that place is our belief that God is incarnate – personally present to us in Jesus – both ‘very God of very God and very man of very man’. Christians adopted a different understanding of God. We believe that in God’s having become ‘like as we are’ we have been offered some defining clues about God’s true nature. And while we embrace the role of God as creator and lawgiver, we affirm most em-phatically that God is act and event – life in the fullest sense – that God is love in the supreme sense – and that in himself there is communication and mutuality.
When Christian theology has been true to how the Bible talks about God, it has always maintained that God is mystery – and it has always acknowledged that this God surpasses all of our ‘god talk’ with its human concepts and attributes. So we give up trying to treat God as an object of rational inquiry – as a Holy One who is susceptible to scientific analyses of various sorts. We ascribe to God no gender or ethnicity – and we know at the outset that we are on a ‘mission impossible’ because we cannot offer an accurate description of God as he is in himself. All the same, we see God’s work in the beauty of creation – we receive the testimony of witnes-ses to his saving work as Jesus – we experience the mystical presence of his Holy Spirit in our lives – and we attribute all of these to the activity of the one true God. And then we think we need to name these events and experiences! But that means speaking of God in novel, unconven-tional, different ways – and that, in turn, means that we speak imperfectly of the perfect God in fragile human language.
I think that early Christians similarly drew on the language available to them to speak of the one God who could, at one and the same time, act as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They af-firmed that the One who created the world is the same One who was among them as Jesus – and the One who continues to be present with us as a reconnecting Power and Spirit between him and us. And they called this One God ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’. Notice that these terms immediate-ly imply relationship – just as they do when we speak of our families – of parents and children and the memory of members no longer bodily present among us. So there is relationship between and among these ‘three’ – and the fundamental question posed by the notion of Trinity is what is the relation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to each other? Are these ‘persons’ the same – or are they only similar to each other? Are they identical or are they somehow distinctly different from each other? Are they related to, but distinguished from, each other?
That question was resolved at the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 which rejected ‘similar to’ in favor of ‘the same as’. And with that choice, the orthodox doctrine was established that each of the three Persons is equal to the entire Trinity – that the entire Trinity is not more than one of its three Persons. That doesn’t do much to explain the mystery of the Tri-nity – but it does say, as best we know how, that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are words that dis-play our experience of the One true God. And that’s precisely what we confess in the Nicene Creed.
All sorts of metaphors have been employed to describe the Trinity, and virtually all of them violate the Nicene Creed – but C. S. Lewis used a metaphor to talk about the Trinity that is highly suggestive. He reminded us that in space we can move in 3 ways – to left or right, back-wards or forwards, up or down. Every direction is either one of these three or a combination of them – and they are called the 3 dimensions. Think about them, he said, in terms of drawing straight lines. If we use only one dimension we can draw only a straight line up/down, left/ right, backwards/forwards. But if we use 2 dimensions, we can draw a figure – say, a square – that is made up of 4 lines – as in 2 lines up and down and 2 lines left and right. And if we use 3 dimen-sions, we can then build what we call a solid body – say, a cube made up of 6 lines – something like a die or a lump of sugar.
Lewis’ point is that as we advance from 1 to 3 dimensions, we don’t leave behind the lines we drew on the simpler levels. We have the same lines, but in the 3rd dimension they are combined in ways we can’t imagine if we know only the 1st or 2nd dimension. The Christian account of God as Trinity involves something of the same notion. In God’s dimension, so to speak, we find a being who is 3 Persons while remaining one Being – much as a cube is 6 squares in 3 dimensions while remaining one cube. That is a useful illustration, but we still cannot fully conceive of an event like that and in the end the Trinity is forever a mystery.
I’ve only wanted to say is that ours is no lonely God, dwelling in splendid isolation – but deity who contains in himself both unity and fellowship – and that he is mysterious, as our own personalities and relationships are mysterious. His grace has not abolished nature but perfected it so that his handiwork is evident in creation – he has most fully revealed himself to us as Jesus – and he abides with us in the presence of his Holy Spirit. This is the one true God whom we wor-ship and adore. Glory be to the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be – world without end. Amen.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.