We celebrate the Holy Trinity today – one of the 7 principal feast days of TEC – so this is not a sermon about philosophy and metaphysics but about how we name God. And it is offered to the glory of the most high God and in the hope it will benefit my neighbors. Our focus is to give serious thought to the mystery of the Holy Trinity at a time in when our church is little turn-ed to theology but uneasy with grammar. You know that we ascribe no ethnicity or gender to God, and that we repudiate misogyny and misandry. All the same masculine pronouns are prom-inent in our scripture and creeds and I use them for the sake of sheer convenience.
Religions are either polytheistic or monotheistic. Polytheistic religions are linear and have many gods for every purpose: a god for fertility, a god for basketball, and so on. Monothe-istic religions worship only one God who, in Islam and Judaism, is principally a lawgiver. Some say that Christians are polytheists who worship not only 3 Gods but a pantheon that includes Je-sus, who is a flesh and blood man said to be the Almighty God incarnate, together with assorted angels and saints, and Satan. Other monotheistic religions have only one name for God, but we have three; so let’s move now from the commonplace to the mysterious.
John begins his gospel: Åí Üñ Þ Þ ëüãïò – ‘in the beginning was the Word’. When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was, the Word was. And the Word was with God at the beginning. Our first Article of Religion (p, 867) says in part: “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions…And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost”. So when we speak of the Trinity, which verb would you say we should use – the plural ‘are’ or the singular ‘is’? Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is 3 in 1- or Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are 3 in 1? That’s a trick question: it doesn’t matter, the orthodox answer is both. But that takes some explaining, and a good starting point is to say that we have faith.
I translate Hebrews 11:1 as “faith gives substance to our hopes, and makes us certain of realities we do not see”. Without any palpable evidence we say that we trust and obey the God who was incarnate in a man named Jesus and who remains with us as the Spirit of truth. We pray to a God we cannot see; we trust a Savior we cannot touch; we believe that an invisible God is real; we affirm that a crucified Jesus is alive; and we say that God is present to us as Spirit. And all this means that faith is confidence that what we hope for is waiting for us. But that confidence is just now absent any physical or material evidence, and that’s where the trouble be-gins for all of us who live in a culture which claims that what is real requires substance and mat-ter that our senses can confirm. Still, over many centuries we have believed that the Spirit of truth has increasingly revealed God’s truth to our understanding so that we can make some godly sense of Jesus’ sayings. In fact, that is the promise in today’s gospel: ‘there is so much more I want to tell you, but you can not understand it just now. All the Father’s glory is mine – and later the Spirit of truth will declare the Father’s truth to you’”. To believe this is for us to act.
For God to reveal is for him to act; so I am led to believe that we best think of God as event; not as a being – as the God who acts – who is event, a work – specifically a work of love from creation to the end of time. That’s how we talk about God – not as a thing but as Spirit – not a time and space creature except as Jesus – not a being at all, not ever an object or an idea that exists. But this poses a real challenge to our recognition of what is real. If God is not a thing – a being of some sort – how can we speak of God? Several analogies from baptism to burial of the dead occur, but the vows of Holy Matrimony seem to me an event that’s similar to the God who acts. A man and a woman pledge that they will become one without losing their individual selv-es, and they say vows they cannot yet begin to explain but earnestly intend to perform, and their unity will be organic but not arithmetic. Imagine how their unity is organic, not arithmetic, how that is precisely the event embedded in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. That’s why marriage, like the Holy Trinity, is an identity that also leaves us nibbling at its edges for understanding.
The word trinity did not enter the Church’s vocabulary until the 3rd c., and like other doc-trines its meaning evolved over time. Early Christians acknowledged that Jesus was fully human, and that his name signified divine identity – and from his birth onward salvific acts were attribut-ed to him – but that led, during the first 4 centuries of the Christian movement, to raging Christo-logical controversies. The acute questions were who-is-Jesus and who belongs in the Godhead – and several advocates rose to answer them. Sabellius argued that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one and the same, but different modes or aspects of a single monadic god – like water in its 3 modes of liquid, steam, and solid. Arius said that the Father’s deity is superior to the Son’s, that Jesus was neither fully human nor divine but a demi-god literally suspended between heaven and earth. And others insisted that Jesus was adopted at his baptism or resurrection or ascension – or that God chose Jesus to be his Son because of his sinless devotion to the will of God. Scriptural evidence exists for all these claims, but they were declared heretical at the Council of Nicea in 352 and that is now our answer to ‘who is Jesus’ and ‘who is in the godhead’. If it sounds like early Christians abandoned monotheism, in fact they found that if they were to acknowledge the evidence of God acting in their lives (there’s that word again – acting) they had to think of the one God in a new way.
The Israelites frequently referred to God acting in anthropomorphic terms – so God can laugh and be angry, see and hear, talk or turn a deaf ear. But beyond all of these human attributes the God of the OT is supremely the Spirit who acts – who created heaven and earth, made us in his own image, delivered us from slavery, established a covenant with his people, and declared that his promises can be relied on. For all their talk about the mystery and majesty and holiness of God, the Israelites tried to characterize God in ways that are humanly understandable. And early Christians took that understanding to a radically new place – to our belief that God became incarnate – personally present to us as Jesus who is ‘very God of very God and very man of very man’. So Christians adopted a different understanding of God. We believe that in God’s having become ‘like as we are except without sin’ we have been offered some special clues about God. While we embrace the role of God as creator and lawgiver, we affirm most emphatically that God is act and event – life in the fullest sense – love in the supreme sense – and while that may not do much to explain the mystery of the Trinity, it does say as best we know how, that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are words that honestly display our experiences of the One true God; and that’s precisely what we will soon confess . “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, of one substance with the Father”.
Saying the Gloria and these words in the Creed repeatably as we do, they sometimes be-come perfunctory and mindless, so to challenge that tendency I now-and-then omit the definite article when referring to Persons of the Holy Trinity. And if people ask me ‘why?’ I think the strategy 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. Or again, in subtle ways, it is easy to think that the blessings of 3 gods are being invoked when what is called ‘trine’ baptism is performed and candidates receive 3 different applications of wa-ter at which the priest says ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’. But all of us know that’s not orthodox Christian teaching because we believe that the Holy Trini-ty is one God, not three – and if omitting the definite article helps make that point clear, that can be a useful thing to do.
Now stay with me for a couple of minutes because one more question needs resolution and that is whether the persons of the Trinity are the same or only similar to each other: homo- or homoi- ousious:. That question was resolved at the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 which rejected homoi (similar to) and adopted homo (the same as). With that choice the or-thodox doctrine was ratified. Each of the Persons is equal to the entire Trinity – they represent how we know God – and the entire Trinity is not more than any one of its three Persons. Early Christians drew on the language available to them to speak of the one God who acted as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And when Christian theology is true to how the Bible talks about God, it always maintains that God is mystery, and always acknowledges that God surpasses all of our ‘god talk’ with its human concepts and attributes. So we give up treating the Holy as an object of rational inquiry – as susceptible to human scientific analyses of various sorts – and admit that God is inaccessible except as he chooses to reveal himself. We don’t ascribe gender or ethnicity to God because we know that God is not one of us -a being – and early on we learn that we are on a mission impossible because, no more than we can give a full description of ourselves, can we of-fer a full description of God. Yet we still see God acting from the beginning in various self-dis-closures: in the beauty of creation – in the great prophets – in the testimony of witnesses to the saving work as Jesus – and in our personal experience of the mystical presence of Holy Spirit in our lives. And we attribute all of these to the activity of the one true God, and then we try to name those events and experiences.
I think that’s entirely understandable; and I’d say that it’s perfectly natural for us time and space creatures to use natural time and space metaphors and analogues to help us better compre-hend the God who, however much present to us, remains supranatural, extramundane, mysteri-ous. So all sorts of metaphors have been employed to help describe the Trinity, and virtually all of them violate the Nicene Creed. But in his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis offered a met-aphor for the Trinity that, if I have described it before I think worth repeating. He says that in space we can move in 3 ways – to left or right, backwards or forwards, up or down. Every direc-tion 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. Try it on paper and see. If we use only one dimension we can draw only straight lines up and down, left and right, backward and forward. But if we use 2 dimensions, we can draw a figure that is made up of 4 lines – as in 2 lines up and down and 2 lines left and right that is a square . And if we use 3 dimensions, 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.
Think about it – that’s you and me – several dimensions tied together as one interrelation. Lewis’ point is that as we advance from 1 dimension to 3 dimensions, we don’t leave behind the lines we drew on the simpler levels. We have the same lines, but they are combined in the 3rd di-mension in ways we can’t imagine if we know only the 1st or 2nd dimension. It’s a unity that is organic, nor arithmetic. And the Christian account of God as Trinity involves something of the same notion. In God’s dimension, so to speak, our experience is of 3 Actors acting as 1 Actor – 1 Person acting as 3 Persons – much as a cube is 6 squares while remaining one cube. That’s not a perfect metaphor – but it’s a useful illustration. We have loose threads and cannot fully conceive of an event like the Trinity. So in the end the mystery that is God remains, much as our own per-sonalities and relationships are mysterious. But the main point of the Trinity is clear. Ours is no lonely God, acting in splendid isolation. 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 worship and adore, and whom we have named after our experiences of him: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So glory be to the one God whose name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be – world without end. So be it. 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.