Archive for August, 2011

On the Trinity

August 14, 2011

From the Rector’s Desk . . .

Continuing a discourse on the Trinity from a recent sermon:

I have heard people say that that they have trouble reciting the Nicene Creed. The most common objection is that the Creed is an ancient formula that attempts to define God in ways that do not reflect modern categories of thought. In effect, that the Creed is irrelevant to modern life and experience. I have also been told that the Creed represents an attempt by leaders of the Church to impose standardized teaching on debatable matters, and so perpetuates paternalism and clericalism. Finally, I hear that the Apostles’ Creed is more ancient, less legalistic, and will do fine thank you if we need a creed at all.

My own view is that the Apostles Creed is indeed quite old, and that there is evidence that in the early Church a rudimentary version was used as part of the rite of Baptism. Since this particular confession of faith begins “I believe,” there is good reason to reserve this form for Baptisms and personal reaffirmations of the Baptismal Covenant.

On the other hand, the Nicene Creed begins “We believe,” and therefore is intended to express the agreed Faith of the Church, even if individual Christians may experience doubt or reservations on occasion. This “We” formula seems quite appropriate for the corporate nature of the weekly parish Sunday Eucharist.

In the past it was assumed that the Creeds express “propositional” truth. That is to say, that they make statements that refer to objective reality. This “orthodox” perspective bothers liberals, who tend to think of church doctrine (and the Bible) as relating to religious experience rather than objective truth.

There is a third way to understand the Creeds[1], in which they function as a kind of symbolic system, or “language”, for expressing the rules by which we talk about God. In my recent sermon on Trinity Sunday, I held up a diagram of the Trinity. For those who could not see the drawing I have reproduced it below.

I do not think the drawing adequately represents God, or even begins to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity. But I will say that at least we can derive some lessons from the drawing regarding what not to say about God.

Here are some examples of how this approach to the Creeds could apply:

1. The doctrine of the Trinity says that the Father and Son are co-eternal, and therefore the Church has insisted that the Creator of the universe is essentially loving, forgiving, and merciful. But the violence attributed to God in parts of the Old Testament seems inconsistent with the Christian belief in a loving Creator. In this case the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that the Bible is a divinely inspired document that has been written and handed down through the generations by fallible human authors, and that the actions and motives attributed to God by these authors must always be interpreted through the offering of God Himself in the Life, Suffering, and Death of our Lord Jesus.

“He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” 1 John 4:8, RSV.

Therefore, we must not say that God is violent or actively encourages violence.

2. In his First Letter to the Church in Corinth, St. Paul chides the members for a number of failures. Each of these errors could be described as a mistake in understanding God by appropriating one Person of the Trinity, while ignoring another Person. “But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” 1 Corinthians 11:17, RSV.

a. The wealthier, presumably non-working, members of the church assembled earlier in the day and held meetings, while consuming all the best food and wine. Later, after a hard day at work, the poorer members would come to the meeting and were offered the leftovers. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that no one should think that the Holy Spirit would benefit one person (or a special group) with wealth, leisure, or spiritual gifts, at the expense of other Christians. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1Cor 12:7)

Therefore, the Church gathers together as the Body of Christ, and we must not say that the Holy Spirit operates alone, and only for the benefit of a select few.

b. In addition, some of the Corinthians thought they were spiritually superior, and lorded this over the others. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2, RSV.)

Even when a particular Christian leader is blessed with immense spiritual gifts, we hold that the Holy Spirit gives the gifts through the co-operation of the Father and Son, and therefore, we must not say that he or she is permitted to treat others with disrespect. 

3.  It is not uncommon for Christians to grow up learning to associate the Persons of the Holy Trinity with a specific divine activity:

a. God the Father, in Creation.

b. God the Son, in Salvation.

c. God the Holy Spirit, in Wisdom.

As we mature we should be mindful that the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that each of the Persons of the Trinity is at “work” co-equally and co-eternally. The Gospel According to John goes as far as to say that the Son was with the Father “in the beginning.” And if we believe that God is “still” sustaining and creating the universe, we should also be confident that Jesus is “still” active in the deliverance of the world from futility and chaos. In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul uses the language of childbirth to describe the way that God in Christ is “still” making the world. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now.” (Rom 8:22 RSV)

How else can we say the Son of God is working in creation even today? The most important way is through the Cross. The death of Jesus on the Cross sets up the conditions for how all Christians are able to understand themselves – even now – as being created in the image of the Living God, entirely caught up in God’s Love, Forgiveness, and Hope.

Jesus’ own disciples betrayed and deserted him. “All of them deserted him and fled.” Mark 14:50, NRSV. The religious and civil authorities persecuted him, and conspired to put Jesus to death. Even so, Jesus forgave them. “And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34, RSV.

When Jesus later appeared to the disciples in the Upper Room, he did not condemn them, but graciously offered his love and forgiveness. He also shared with them the blessing of the Father, and the life-giving encouragement of the Holy Spirit. “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20:21, 22, RSV.

Therefore, we must not say (even by implication) that long-ago the Father created a defective world, and that the Son later came to repair it. Instead, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that God has been, and continues to be, with us for the “long-haul,” Even when we go our own way (and after other gods), our loving God is still with us, calling us to faithfulness and holiness of life.

Almighty God, you have revealed to your Church your eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as one God in Trinity of Persons: Give us grace to continue steadfast in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; for you live and reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 251)


[1] George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, Westminster John Knox Press, 1984.