This Lord’s Day past was that one which rolls around every year on the liturgical calendar, right after the Day of Pentecost.
And once again, I joined the company of preachers all over the world who approached it, asking: “What can I say about this?”
Not that there’s a shortage of things to say about the Trinity. In fact, that’s part of the problem. What we sermon-writers struggle with is really a two-fold question: “What can I say about this gigantic subject in the slight time available?” and “What can I say that won’t put the congregation to sleep?”
On both counts, this is a daunting challenge.
I decided to begin with a definition. According to one dictionary, the word Trinity (also called “Blessed Trinity” and “Holy Trinity”) describes the union of three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in “one Godhead,” or the “three-fold personality of the one Divine Being.”
Got that? Three persons? One “Godhead”?
(I wonder how many people think a “Godhead” is somebody with a head full of God …)
Here’s another definition, taken from the ancient Creed of Athanasius:
We worship one God in the Trinity and the Trinity in unity, without either confusing the persons or dividing the substance; for the person of the Father is one, the Son’s is another, the Holy Spirit’s another; but the Godhead of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.
Does that clear things up?
That creed, incidentally, gave birth to the familiar diagram known as “The Shield of the Trinity” (Scutum Fidei):
It’s supposed to be a visual representation of the Holy Trinity, as described in the Athanasian Creed.
The original Latin wording is translated as follows: “The Father is God, The Son is God, The Holy Spirit is God; God is the Father, God is the Son, God is the Holy Spirit; The Father is not the Son, The Son is not the Father, The Father is not the Holy Spirit, The Holy Spirit is not the Father, The Son is not the Holy Spirit, The Holy Spirit is not the Son.”
Perhaps the Catechism of the Catholic Church (art. 237) treats this subject in the best possible way when it says, “God has left traces of his Trinitarian being in his work of creation and in his Revelation throughout the Old Testament. But his inmost Being as Holy Trinity is a mystery that is inaccessible to reason alone …”
“A mystery inaccessible to reason” … and yet … “God has left traces of his Trinitarian being” in Scripture.
The Trinity is revealed in the Bible? Maybe—for those of us who claim an evangelical heritage—that’s an even better place to begin this discussion. The Trinitarian God is the God of the Bible, and—for those with eyes to see—his triune being appears over and over again in Scripture. As theologian Thomas Oden has pointed out, in the very first verse of the Bible, where the text says: “In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth,” the Hebrew word translated as “God” is Elohim—which is a plural noun! Likewise, in verse 26 of Genesis, chapter one—when “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness’”—the one God is speaking in the first person in plural form!1
In the New Testament, we see that Jesus characteristically referred to God as his “Father” (MATT. 12:50; 26:53; MARK 14:36), and it is this Father who sends “his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (JOHN 3:16). It was, of course, Jesus’ persistence in speaking of God affectionately as “his own Father” that made his opponents ever more determined to kill him, because by calling God his own Father, he was claiming equality with God (see JOHN 5:18).
Yet—despite this equality—a clear distinction is made between Father and Son. One gives, the other is given. One confers power and authority, the other receives it (JOHN 12:44-49; 17:18-25). As Thomas Oden also notes, “we cannot come away from these New Testament texts saying that God is at one time Father and at another time Son … but eternally both—distinguishable, but equal.2
Likewise, Scripture applies to the Holy Spirit names that could only be properly ascribed to God—titles such as: “Spirit of God” (ROM 8:14), “Spirit of the Lord” (2 COR 3:17), “the Holy Spirit of Promise” (EPH 1:13), “the Spirit of Wisdom” (EPH 1:17), “the Spirit of Truth” (JOHN 16:13), and the “Counselor” or “Comforter” (JOHN 14:26). At the same time, the Holy Spirit is an active, dynamic, and articulate Person distinct from the Father and the Son.
In the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is directly quoted several times—and in at least two of these instances, the Spirit speaks in the first person as “I”. In chapter 10, when Cornelius’s servants are looking for Peter, the Spirit says to him, “… three men are looking for you … accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them” (ACTS 10:20). And in chapter 13, the Holy Spirit speaks to the leaders of the church at Antioch, saying, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (ACTS 13:2). Only a person can say “I”.
And of course, there are the many Scriptural benedictions wherein the Holy Spirit is mentioned on an equal level with God—as, for example, in 2 Cor. 13:14, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” The risen Christ himself instructed his disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (MATT. 28:19).
Way back in 1932, the eminent Swiss theologian Karl Barth said that the church’s confession of God as triune acknowledges the authentic structure of divine revelation. According to Barth, the church believes in the Trinitarian nature of God because that is the way in which God is revealed to us. In speaking his Word, the hidden, ineffable God reveals himself to us; in sending his Son, God becomes the revelation itself; and in sending his Spirit, God makes himself effectively known to human beings. As Barth put it in his Church Dogmatics (I/1:296): “God Himself in unimpaired unity yet also in unimpaired distinction is Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness.”
Now, at this point, I could have gone on, and on, and … on. I could have dazzled my congregation with terms like “hypostatic union” and Greek words like homoousios. I could have given them some history and background to prepare them for an in-depth discussion of what happened at the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325, which affirmed that God the Son and God the Father are “of the same substance.” I’m sure I could have engaged them in a riveting dialogue about whether the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son”—or from the Father only ... But …
Yeah … exactly. I thought they’d suffered enough. So I didn’t do any of that. But what meaningful thing could I tell them, on that “Trinity Sunday”?
Well, what I said was this: I think the church’s insistence upon defining God as triune points to the reality of the Christian God.
What do I mean?
Consider what a stumbling block this Trinity doctrine has been. No one really understands it—that’s why even the church’s best theologians have described it as a “mystery.” Non-believers point to it as evidence that the Christian faith is founded on nonsense. Because of it, the earliest believers faced accusations of polytheism.
From outside the church, the doctrine of the Trinity appears ridiculous. From inside the church, it appears—at best—confusing.
So why has the church insisted upon teaching it—insisted upon describing God in Trinitarian language? I mean, who needs a doctrine like this one—especially if you’re trying to convince people of Christianity’s claims to truth? It’s a bad marketing strategy.
It’s like me telling a wedding couple that confetti is prohibited on church property, “unless you buy our special sacred confetti at $200 a bag!”
Bad marketing. Nobody would believe it. Everybody would see how ridiculous it was. And even if I was that thoroughly unscrupulous, I would never dare attempt to float that scam. That’s why cigarette companies no longer claim that tobacco is good for you. They might wish they could still tell you that—but they know better than to try.
Bad marketing. Magic confetti and healthy cigarettes—advertising claims like that would have no benefit for product sales. They could only result in people being put off the brand entirely—because none of us appreciates being taken for a fool.
And I would wager that—to most people who hear about it for the first time—the Trinity doctrine sounds utterly foolish. It always has. So why has the church continued to flog this bizarre idea?
Why would the church insist upon this illogical concept … unless … ?
Unless we believe it’s the truth—whether we understand it, or not! Unless that’s just the way God is—and the point is not up for debate.
See, here’s the thing: a God who is not “really real”—a God who is purely a fiction, a human invention … that sort of God can be customized to our taste. We can say anything we like about him, because he isn’t actually there to call us to account.
We could have jettisoned the idea of the Trinity long ago, and made our teaching more palatable to intelligent people. More acceptable. Easier to swallow.
There are some who have undertaken that exact project—and they have not stopped at trying to “debunk” the Trinity. They’ve also dismissed Biblical miracles as folk tales, or as natural phenomena misunderstood in a pre-scientific culture. They’ve thrown out the literal bodily resurrection of Christ, because it seems unbelievable, and they hold Scripture to be nothing more than “ancient books” that provide a window into a long-gone era. But in the end, that approach has led to the assertion that God is nothing other than a metaphor. It has put atheists in pulpits, and it has made agnosticism look—by comparison—like vital faith.
Except it isn’t. A god which we can define or redefine as we see fit—belief in whose existence is considered optional—this is an imaginary god, a false god, “the work of human hands,” like the idols described in Psalm 115 (vv. 4-8):
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.
A god which we define—a god which fits neatly into the tiny box of our understanding—is a lifeless, graven image, the kind of which Jeremiah the prophet spoke (JER 10:3-4). It is worked “by the hands of a craftsman” and decorated “with silver and gold”—and it is fastened “with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.”
By contrast, the living God—the real God—refuses to be nailed down. He will not be confined by our definitions. He is not limited by our understandings. He is the God of here and now, and—for those with eyes to see—he is present everywhere.
Some of us have apprehended him as a “living light” that has appeared in a moment of severe crisis—or even during a near-death experience.
Some of us have experienced him—experienced him, not imagined him—as an unseen, yet very tangible, presence that sits with us on the floor as we play with our children.
A few of us have even felt this God as an almost literal rushing wind that has at once taken our breath away—and then given it back to us … with tongues of fire.
Most of us, I suspect, have never witnessed quite those kinds of supernatural occurrences. And perhaps most of us don’t really desire them! But you know, if you turn up in church on a Sunday morning of your own free will … if you come to worship of your own accord … then it seems to me that something has drawn you. Something other than simple habit.
In our time, religious faith of any kind has become counter-cultural. Most people in western society simply do not think about religion at all. And if they do think about God, they probably don’t connect him with a denomination. Those few who do … even if they think maybe they really should show up in church … even if it’s just to please their grandma …
The truth is, most of them just turn over and go back to sleep after the alarm rings on Sunday morning.
So … if you are among those faithful few who take the trouble to rise early on the first day of the week, and get yourself fed and dressed and out the door in time to … Well, perhaps to listen to a preacher ramble on about the Trinity, of all things …
You may not even be able to explain why, exactly … but deep down, you know that something … actually, Someone … has called you, and you have chosen to respond. Did the Father summon you? Did you hear the voice of Jesus saying, “Come and follow me?” Or did the wind of the Spirit carry you here? Is it (a) or (b) or (c)? Is it all of the above?
I’m not sure it matters a whole lot. What matters is that God’s grace brings us together. What’s important is the God’s grace calls us to assemble—calls us to be the gathered Body of Christ. Because grace is what God is. Grace is the essence of the Trinity. It constitutes the Godhead. Grace is God’s inward nature. To us, it is always amazing. And to us, it always sounds … sweet!
1 Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: a Systematic Theology (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), p. 110.
2 Ibid., p. 114.