June 11, 2014 by mattwilcoxen
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday–the day in the church’s calendar when we contemplate the fact that the one God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Since we spend the rest of the year praying to God the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit, having Trinity Sunday is a funny thing to do. It’s a bit like stopping a game that we clearly know how to play in order to review the rudimentary principles. When everyone plays by the rules, what need is there for anyone to articulate them explicitly?
The reality of worship is that not everyone worships by the rules. In fact, there is a factor within us that militates against the rules–sin. Follow me: if sin is the rejection of the gracious God, and if the gracious God is the divine Trinity, then sin will always take on a decidedly anti-trinitarian bent. The heretics were not especially sinister fellows typically; they were just boldly articulating a tendency that runs in our veins–and something that has not left us as Christians.
This means that Trinity Sunday is a day of repentance. It is a day in which we have to turn away from our sin–our heresy. What is this heresy that we have to turn away from? It takes on a variety of forms, but it always amounts to a denial that God has reconciled women and men to himself in Jesus Christ. That is the gospel, after all–“that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” and is now extending this work reconciliation through human beings (2 Cor 5:18-20). Anti-trinitarian teaching will sever the connection between God, Jesus Christ, and God’s missional work in his people. This is something we must repent of.
So with this in mind: what of the doctrine of the Trinity–the teaching, the creeds, the technical terms; the stuff about one substance/nature and three persons/hypostases and all that? There are a number of troubling aspects to the creedal insistence that there is one divine nature in three persons, “neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance” (St. Athanasius). In the first place: isn’t it a basic logical error–an irrational statement? Our Jewish, Muslim, and secular friends will all be keen to remind us that three is not one and one is not three. Secondly, isn’t it something that the Bible doesn’t actually teach? It involves the intrusion of philosophical categories: non-biblical, Platonic terms. Thirdly, why on earth is it so important that “except a man believe [it] faithfully, he cannot be saved”? That seems to imply that you find salvation by having the right ideas in your head.
The first thing to recognize is what the doctrine of the Trinity is trying to accomplish. As Stephen Holmes writes, Trinitarian theologians are seeking “grammar, not logic. It is a coherent way of speaking, not a set of convincing arguments” (The Holy Trinity, p. 109. emphasis mine). That’s absolutely right–the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t a logical argument. Logic precedes from one premise to the next premise and so on to a conclusion. Logic combines two things into a third. Grammar on the other hand is not so constructive–it gives the rules of a language that is already in operation. For the sake of simplicity, we might say that human language cannot give a logical account of God because God is not the synthesis or conclusion of any process. God, by definition, is just simply there. We can’t come to him by a process–he has to come to us on his own and then we can only follow after.
(For those particularly interested: we can see the logic of created things, because created things by definition are composed–they have parts that form a whole. You can see how A+B = C. When we discover the logic of created things we are thinking God’s thoughts about creation after him–whether we are believers or not. But God is uncreated–there is no process to who he is. He has no parts. Whatever he is, he is. You can’t break him up into a logical sequence.)
I have been describing how God is radically different–how he can’t be thought of or described like every other thing. When the church (and the Bible) confesses God’s “one-ness”, she is confessing that God is radically unique, singularly different. He cannot be reasoned to, comprehended, or broken into a sequence. That is what it means for God to be “one”.
God’s uniqueness implies that if God is to be known, it would have to be something that occurs entirely by God’s prerogative. God would have to show up and simply be there for us. This is what theologians call “revelation”. This is what Christians believe they have experienced in the man Jesus Christ–“God was in Christ”, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him”. Jesus doesn’t give us information about God–he is the person and will of God present to us in a human form. Yet what happens in the whole story about Jesus? We are presented with “the Son” who is sent by “the Father” and who with the Father sends “the Holy Spirit”. The Father is the sender, the Son is the sent, and the Spirit is the one who receives this sending on our behalf, within us.
Each of these three I have mentioned have to be God. First of all because the New Testament texts present them as such. But there is a logic to it as well. If salvation is my being reconciled to God–coming to know and experience his peace, then I have to have a personal encounter with him. If the Father alone is God, but not the Son, then I only know God through an intermediary. We are like pen-pals and Jesus Christ is our postman. Therefore Jesus Christ must be God, too. But if The Father and the Son are God and the Spirit is not, then I do not have the proper receptive faculty to know God, since he is so utterly unique and unknowable on a creaturely basis. Therefore if the Spirit really is the way in which I am brought into relationship with the Father and the Son, then the Spirit too must be God. And each of these must be fully the one God–otherwise we cut God up into parts and make him like a creature–a process. Furthermore, if they are not all three fully the one God, then we are not fully reconciled to God.
So this utterly unique (“one”) Creator God presents himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (“three”). Because of God being, by nature, just simply there, the one God must have always been these three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In response to various objections, the church has always been forced to answer the questions “one what?” and “three what?” The first question is easily answered from scripture–one God. That is, one divine thing, nature, substance. The second question has always been a bit trickier: what can we call the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? We can’t call them “gods” because then we would either lapse into irrationality or equivocation. We can’t call them anything that gives the impression of being parts of God, because that too contradicts what we’ve already said. So we have to come up with some term. The church has traditionally, though not exclusively, decided to go with some form of “person”. But this does not mean “individual” or “centre of consciousness”–it can’t mean that. We are essentially just saying “person” because we can’t come up with a better term.
(A general note: if you have some illustration or image of the Trinity–some analogy, whatever it is, and if you think it has been really helpful for your understanding the Trinity–then you are only showing that you have misunderstood the Trinity!)
Short Trinity statement: The one God is always–eternally–simply there as these three “persons”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each fully God.
There is one tendency I have not yet discussed. It is the tendency to be very rational about the above short statement by saying that the one God actually just shows up in three forms at different times. Sometimes he is the Father, sometimes he is the Son, and sometimes he is the Spirit. This would make a lot of sense as to how the one could be three–we can all imagine one actress playing three different, non-concurrent roles in the same drama. The problem with this view is that it claims to have a superior vantage point from which to make a judgment about who God is. Let me explain: if I watch a film in which Cate Blanchett plays three different non-concurrent roles, I can recognize that it is the same actress playing different roles because I already know who Cate Blanchett is! I could only say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are really just roles God is playing if I already know who God really is. But the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are God’s revelation of himself–so how can I talk about who God really is? I’d be, in effect, saying: “I see through your little charade, God, I can tell who you really are!” I cannot do this; I have to say, “I accept who you say you are, God, and I won’t try to understand you on my own terms, as if I have a superior vantage point to you.”
After far too many (and yet far too few!) words, I can say this: confessing the doctrine of the Trinity is an act of intellectual thankfulness to what God has revealed to us; we receive God’s gift of himself. It is also a form of intellectual repentance in that, by confessing it, we renounce the attempts to understand God on our terms. It is at once an act of gratitude and repentance.
Salvation has effects in every area of our lives. The apostle James says that “faith without works is dead”. A true faith will produce ethical obedience in our lives. We might paraphrase him and also say “faith without trinitarian confession is dead”. That is, a true faith will also produce intellectual obedience–the submission of our thoughts about God to who God is in his revelation.
That is what Trinity Sunday is about.