The Holy Trinity
Prayer of the Day: Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Trinity is the way disciples of Jesus think about God and the way we think about God matters. If you don’t think it matters how one thinks about God, then you should probably have a chat with the survivors of the 9/11 attacks or loved ones of Dr. George Tiller gunned down in the narthex of his church by an antiabortion activist or the parents of the 77 children murdered by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway two years ago in his campaign to preserve Christian culture in Europe. Wrongheaded thinking about God is lethal. So I think it is probably a good idea that we take a Sunday out of the church year to reflect on what we mean when we begin our worship in the name of the “Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Let’s start with dispelling some misunderstandings about the Holy Trinity.
God is not a committee. As child, I pictured the Trinity as an old man, a young man and a bird. I understood vaguely that these three were somehow the same and yet different, though I never quite knew how. (I can’t honestly say that the question interested me very much back then.) I can also recall a diagram like the one below from my Sunday School days.
While this diagram lets us know what cannot be said about the Holy Trinity, it doesn’t help us much in puzzling through what we should be saying. There are many extremely poor analogies that well meaning Sunday School instructors have used to help small children “get” the Trinity. I fear that by repeating them, I will only make myself complicit in perpetuating the misunderstandings they spawn. Suffice to say that I think it is perfectly acceptable to respond to questions children might raise about the Trinity by explaining that some things require years of thinking and growing to understand. When it comes to God, there is always more to learn. That is another reason why going to church must be a lifelong practice rather than one you leave behind along with middle school.
One tempting but inadequate way of overcoming the “committee misnomer” is the “modalist” explanation for the Trinity. Quite simply, God is one, but reveals himself in three different modes: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This solves the problem of the three by denying their separate existence. You may be familiar with the example of the woman who is a mother, a doctor and a wife. Though she is a caregiver, a healer and a lover, she is one single person. In the same way, God creates as the Father, redeems as the Son and sanctifies through the Spirit while remaining one God. Though it has a surface logic to it and a humanizing appeal, this analogy is fatally flawed. First, though the woman in the analogy retains her personhood throughout her daily life, her roles dictate that she must relate differently to the people she deals with throughout her day. Clearly, moral and professional boundaries stand in the way of her expressing the kind of love she has for her husband to her patients. Furthermore, if her husband or children were in need of medical care, she might well lack the objectivity required to provide that care despite her obvious competence. In a sense, this woman is required by her different roles to be a different person to each of the different groups of people in her life. I don’t believe we want to say the same about our God.
Another problem with this modalist outlook is that it obscures rather than reveals the true identity of God. After all, if the Father, Son and Spirit are nothing more than modes of the one God, they don’t really name God. If they are just modes through which God acts, we still do not know who God is. What is to stop us from supposing that there might be other modes of God? Furthermore, if the Triune invocation is merely descriptive of God’s functions, we could just as easily dispense with it altogether and replace it with more descriptive verbal nouns, such as creator, redeemer and sanctifier as some liturgies have in fact done. Clearly, the modalist path is not the one we want to follow. So forget the above analogy of the woman/doctor and delete it permanently from your memory drive.
In my own view, the most helpful expression of Trinitarian thought comes to us from St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries. Augustine argued mainly against the notion that the Son, as begotten by the Father, was somehow inferior to the Father and so less than God. One of Augustine’s most potent counter arguments went as follows: God is eternal and God is love. For love always to have existed there must always have been a lover and a beloved. Therefore, the Trinity exists eternally as the Father (lover) who loves the son (beloved) and the Spirit (mutual love between lover and beloved). On the Trinity, Book 8, ch. 10. The distinction between Father, Son and Holy Spirit lies not in their external acts, but in their dynamic relationship within God’s self. On the Trinity, Book 1 ch. 4. Augustine therefore also rejected the modalist notion that the persons of the Trinity can be differentiated on the basis of what they do. Indeed, we cannot speak of the Father, Son or Holy Spirit being solely responsible for any single external divine act. All of God’s acts are unitary acts of the whole Trinity. Even when the Scriptures attribute certain activities to one of the Trinitarian persons, the others are always present and equally involved. Jesus acts solely on the authority of the Father; the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus and comes from the Father; the Father is known only through the Son who is in the bosom of the Father.
If you are still reading at this point, you must be wondering why any of this matters. It matters because the church has some definite things to say about God. God is not a question mark. While it is true to say that God is unknowable, God is not unknown. That is because God has revealed himself to us in the person of his Son to whom the scriptures bear witness. There is plenty about our God that remains a mystery to us, but the heart and character of God have been revealed. We are not blind men feeling up an elephant with no idea what we are encountering. (I am alluding, of course, to that perfectly ghastly poem, The Blind Men and the Elephant, by John Godfrey Saxe.)
Trinity matters because disciples of Jesus confess that self giving love for the other, loyalty, faithfulness and hospitality are not merely social conventions, evolved behaviors or even scriptural norms. They are virtues grounded in the very being and character of God where they are expressed perfectly within God’s Triune self. To be created in God’s image is to be capable of embodying the character of God, and this is no mere spiritual aspiration. It is concretely grounded in the reality of the incarnation-the Word of God made flesh in Jesus.
I am not at all sure why this reading is included among the Holy Trinity lessons. It just happens to be one of the texts that the Arian heretics cited in support of their claim that the Son was a creature (albeit an exalted one) and in no sense true God. In this particular text, wisdom is not a pre-existent divine being distinct from God, but an aspect or characteristic of God who is poetically endowed with speech. Thus, it is largely irrelevant to the dispute between the Arians and the Orthodox Trinitarian believers. Still, it is a wonderful text testifying to the beauty and order of creation and the glory of its Creator.
The Book of Proverbs is a collection of poems and short sayings dating from as early as the tenth century B.C.E. to as late as the fourth century B.C.E. Unlike the Psalms which are for the most part expressions of prayer, praise, and lament within the context of worship, Proverbs is concerned with universal and pragmatic “wisdom” and the means by which it is acquired. Though clearly influenced by Egyptian and Mesopotamian wisdom literature, Israel’s understanding of wisdom has its own unique flavor. Though it shares with these foreign sources a humanistic focus on reasoned inquiry into the natural world, Israelite wisdom identifies the divine will and purpose as the ultimate human good wisdom reveals. Truth acquired through reason is open to the whole of humanity. Still, for Israel wisdom is subordinate to Israel’s God. It functions within the context of Israel’s covenants and the Torah.
In view of all this, it is not surprising that the particular poem in this week’s lesson affirms that wisdom, as wonderful as she is and though accessible to all willing to submit to her instruction, is nevertheless God’s creation. The human mind can do no more than appropriate what already exists by virtue of God’s creative activity at the dawn of time. Wisdom therefore necessarily takes the shape of Torah. It is not that Israel forsakes reasoned inquiry for blind adherence to law. Nor can it be said that Israel’s keen spirit of inquiry runs contrary to Torah obedience. Rather, Torah both shaped Israel’s questions of the natural world and informed her conclusions. Perhaps the clearest case of incorporation of wisdom into Torah is found in the very lengthy Psalm 119. Though the psalmist praises Torah as the source of all wisdom, it is obvious his/her own wisdom has been forged in the furnace of experience where Torah meets the challenges of every day life.
This psalm is one that biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann classifies a song of orientation. As such, it expresses “a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Publishing House (c. 1984) p. 25. It is further classified by the majority of Old Testament scholars as a “creation” psalm glorifying God for making and sustaining an orderly and reliable world in which season follows upon season, harvest upon harvest and the cycles of birth, maturation, old age and death are blessed with the gracious presence of the Lord.
The psalm points specifically to the place of human beings in the created order. Though the psalmist does not focus on human frailty and mortality, s/he is clearly aware it when asking “what are human beings and their descendents that you care for them?” vs. 4. In comparison with God’s other works, the sun, the moon and the stars which are for all practical purposes immortal, human beings with their moribund existence and their short, fragile lives hardly seem to register. Yet the psalmist recognizes that God is uniquely concerned with human beings, that they are little lower than the angels in his estimation and that they have been appointed to rule over the earth and its creatures.
It is important to understand that “dominion” over the earth given human beings is to be exercised as an extension of God’s reign over creation. Thus, the words of last week’s psalm should be ringing in our ears: “All of [the creatures of the earth]look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.” Psalm 104:27-29. Dominion is not given to human beings for exploitation of the earth and its resources. Human beings rule as stewards who must give account for the care they have exercised in managing God’s good earth. Ecology is very much a biblical value!
Stylistically, the psalm is carefully crafted to reflect in its composition the same good order manifest throughout God’s creation. It begins and ends with the same refrain: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” The psalm begins with people, even infants, glorifying God for the majesty of the heavens. Then the psalm turns to God’s glorification of human beings, small though they may be, in making them rulers over the earth and sea.
For Paul, the Holy Spirit is the animating force for the church which he regards as the Body of the resurrected Christ. As such, the Spirit’s primary concern is the health of that Body. Gifts of the Spirit given individually to members of the church are intended to “build up” the Body of Christ. Thus, it matters not at all which particular gift one has, but how one uses his or her gift. Whether one speaks in other tongues, prophesies, works miracles or exercises leadership, the net result must be that the church is strengthened. If leadership divides and alienates rather than unites or if miracles draw attention to the miracle worker rather than to the mercy of God in Christ, then these gifts become tools of Satan to break down the Body. Paul lays out all of this very succinctly in I Corinthians 12. Put differently, spiritual gifts must be exercised under the gentle reign of love. Of all the manifestations of the Spirit within the church, “the greatest of these is love” I Corinthians 13:13. That should help us understand what Paul is saying here in Romans.
“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” Vs. 5. Recall Augustine’s assertion that the Trinitarian character of God is revealed in the love between the Father and the Son which is the Holy Spirit. Genuine love, however, is not exclusive. It “overflows” the bounds of the relationships that give rise to it. Perhaps that is what we mean when we confess in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the Father and the Son. Love is ever seeking new objects. One of our more modern Trinitarian hymns contains the following line: “The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #412. It is precisely because the one God is also three and because the relationship between the three is characterized by their mutual love and because love by its very nature makes room for the other, the Spirit of God, which is love, broods over the waters at the dawn of time seeking that other. The Word beckons the other into being and the Father blesses what comes to be. Again, this is not to say that the universe was the work of a committee. Rather, creation is a singular act of the Triune God which bears the stamp of that God’s innermost Trinitarian being.
It is perhaps clearer now why Jesus could say that the two greatest commandments are first to love God with all the heart, mind, soul and strength, and next to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Such love is grounded in the innermost being of God.
In this tightly packed paragraph from John, Jesus speaks of the interaction between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of truth will be given to the disciples and will lead them into “all the truth.” Yet the Spirit speaks not on its own authority, but on the authority of the Father. However, the Spirit imparts “truth” to the disciples by “taking what is mine [Jesus’) and declaring it to you.” The disciples are recipients of the Spirit who comes from the Father and whose sole job is to impart Jesus to them. Once again, the sending of the Spirit is a unitary act of the one Triune God by which the disciples are drawn into the heart of God’s Trinitarian life of mutual love. Not surprisingly, this section of John was a favorite of our friend Augustine on whom I have perhaps gone a little heavier than I should have.
Augustine’s Trinitarian arguments have often been criticized as mere word games. Yet I believe that there is a substantive basis for his insistence on the necessity of God’s being Triune. If God were merely one, could it still be said that God’s nature and character is love? Love needs an object. Consequently, if God were one and not Triune, love could not have preexisted creation as it would have had no object. The essence of God would then have to have been something other than love. Rather than being essential to God’s being, love would be only an acquired attribute.
While the above argument may not be fully air tight as a “proof” for the Trinity, it illustrates why a Trinitarian understanding of God is so critical to what we confess about God. God so loved the world precisely because God created the world out of an outpouring of love. God gave his only Son to save the world because that is what one does for a loved one. God poured out his Holy Spirit upon the disciples enabling them to preach the good news of Jesus to the world because love always overflows its channels. What God does flows from who God is.