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.
“Why all these academic arguments about the Trinity? It doesn’t make sense to us believers who just want a simple faith in Jesus.” So said a participant in a recent ecumenical gathering following an articulate address on the subject by a prominent theologian. I hear similar complaints all the time on all manner of doctrinal issues from devout Christians of all backgrounds who are concerned about the rise of racism, the ongoing scourge of world hunger, global warming and who wonder how, in the face of all this, theologians can still be obsessed with doctrinal questions from the distant past.
There is some merit to this objection. Nonetheless, I would like to put in a good word for the doctrine of the Trinity-and perhaps dogma generally. And let me start by admitting that the doctrine of the Trinity is subtle, complex and difficult to understand. So is every human language; so is physics; so is anything that is worth learning. Worship that does not include the full engagement of your mind is beneath you. Suppose your daughter or son came home with a failing report card in mathematics and told you, “Gee, I can add, subtract, multiply and divide. That’s enough math. Who needs equations and geometry?” I am guessing you would definitely not be OK with that. So, if you don’t accept stupidity and intellectual laziness when it comes to math, why should it be tolerated in learning about what defines the core of who we are? Face it, there is no virtue in superficiality-particularly when it comes to faith, worship and discipleship.
The God we worship is no less complex than the cosmos God created. And that cosmos is complex indeed! Every new discovery in the realm of science reveals to us new levels of complexity, new patterns of relatedness and new entities that force us to re-think all we thought we knew, re-evaluate our past conclusions and revise our theories. Should it surprise us that God is at least as complex and filled with surprises as is God’s universe? Rightly understood, the doctrine of the Trinity is not the last word on God’s being. It represents, rather, the outer limits of what is knowable, the platform on which we stand to view a mystery that is finally incomprehensible. Yet because it is the platform, it needs to be securely established. In short, we cannot say everything there is to be said or know everything that can be known about God. But what we do know and what we do say matters.
One of the earliest and nearly triumphant heresies rejected by the church was “Arianism.” Named for its alleged propagator, Arias of Alexandria, this teaching in all of its various forms subordinated God the Son to God the Father, thereby reducing the Son to a creation or secondary emanation of God the Father. There is something intuitively attractive about this notion. Hierarchy is inherent in human relationships. Our households, governments and even our churches are hierarchical to a degree and perhaps necessarily so. Good order seems to depend on someone being in charge. It is hard to imagine a kindergarten class without a teacher. So why shouldn’t the same hierarchy of rank be found within the Trinitarian Godhead? There is no such hierarchy in God, however. The Son is “eternally begotten of the Father,” which means that there never was a time when the Son did not exist and that the Son’s eternal relationship to the Father is essential to God’s being. The Spirit of mutual and reciprocal love between Father and Son is God’s very self.
It is for this reason that hierarchies of every kind, though perhaps necessary for the time being, are contingent, temporary and destined to be dissolved when the Spirit of love that is the glue holding the Trinity together unites all people in Christ just as Christ is united to the Father. Accordingly, we cannot ever speak of any hierarchy as divinely ordained or eternally established. A robust understanding of the Trinity will not allow for divinizing the “traditional family,” any form of church order or the governing structures of any nation state. At best, these forms of hierarchy serve as scaffolding destined to come down when the building is complete. There will be no subordination of anyone when Christ is “all in all.”
There is no Sunday of the church year during which more heresy is preached than on Holy Trinity. I believe this is the consequence of well meaning, but misguided efforts to make the mystery easily comprehensible. I cringe when I see a preacher calling the children of the congregation forward on Trinity Sunday and producing an apple because I know what is coming next. The apple will be pealed, sliced and cored. Just as the one apple has three parts, so the Trinity has three persons. Then there is the water analogy: Water can be gaseous, liquid or solid, but it’s all still water. Worst of all is the woman who is a doctor, a mother and a wife. (That last one gets more air time than it should from preachers who really should know better.)
All of the above analogies suffer from the same basic flaw the ancient church names “modalism.” In this distorted view of things, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply alternative “modes” in which God makes God’s self known. In the case of the apple, God is a three headed monster. The water analogy loses the three persons altogether leaving only a single actor with three costumes. The Doctor analogy fails because at any point the doctor might divorce her husband, lose her license to practice medicine or suffer the loss of her children. Nevertheless, she would still essentially be the same person without these relationships which, however important and formative, are nonetheless exterior to her being. Furthermore, defining the persons of the Trinity in terms of God’s relationships to creation runs amok when you consider that the relationship is peculiar to its object. Thus, the relationship the doctor has with her husband clearly would be improper toward her patients. Similarly, if her husband or children needed medical care, it would be professionally improper for her to provide it to them. Finally, there is no necessity that the doctor be “triune” even in the erroneous sense in which we are speaking. In addition to the three relationships we have discussed, the doctor might also be a fierce competitor on the squash court and a passionate representative of her political district in government. All of these relationships might tell us something about what the doctor values and prioritizes, but they do not tell us anything about her essential being. Modalism thus suggests that the persons of the Trinity are merely disguises worn by a God about whom we can really know nothing and that there might as well be as many gods as there are people.
Trinitarian teaching rejects this understanding and asserts that the essence of God can be known because God reveals that essence in the person of God’s Son. God is the one who loves and has been loved from the beginning. God is the one who gives the object of God’s love to the world in the hope that the love between God the Father and God the Son may be poured out upon God’s creation, binding as one all things in Jesus Christ. The essence of this God is perfect love that heals the cracks and fault lines threatening to fracture the cosmos. The divine glue that binds the Trinity and holds the universe together is stronger than all the forces bent on ripping it apart. That is a lot to get one’s head around, but it’s incredibly good news-too good to be dumbed down.
Here is a poem by Michael J. Bugeja that gives the doctrine of the Trinity its due.
You have distinct dimensions. They are we:
Encyclopedias and alphabets
Of the Big Bang, exobiology,
Inhabitants on multitudes of planets.
Our light cannot escape your gravity.
The soul is linked to yours, a diode
Through which we must return as energy
Until we flare like red suns, and explode:
We try to reconstruct you with an ode
Or explicate your essence line by line.
We canonize commandments like a code
Etched within the DNA. If we’re divine,
Composing simple poems, making rhymes,
Then what are others in this paradigm?
Then what are others in this paradigm
If not superior? We’re grains of sand.
You have a billion planets to command
With technologies that attained their prime
Before we left the alluvial slime
For land and land for trees and trees for land
Again. These chosen beings went beyond
The boundaries and laws of space and time
To greater meccas. What miracles do
They require? How many stars, their Magi?
Who, their Pilot? When, their Armageddon?
Were we made in God’s image and they too?
Do you save sinners on Alpha Centauri,
All the nebular rosaries of heaven?
All the nebular roasries of heaven
Are bounded by the lace of your cosmic string.
The unifying force, interwoven
In the clockwork of space-time, is a spring:
One moment we live here and the next, there.
The universe has edges off of which
No one will fall. Because you’re everywhere,
Its seam appears the same from every stitch:
The father sparks the singularity.
We breed like godseed in the firmament.
The Son forgives so that eternity,
Your sole domain, becomes self-evident:
Together you complete the trinity.
You have distinct dimensions: they are we.
Source: Poetry, March 1994 pp. 316-317. Michael J. Bugeja was born in Hackensack, New Jersey and received his B. A. from St. Peter’s College. He earned his M.S. from South Dakota State University and a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University. He currently teaches magazine writing and ethics at Ohio University at Athens, Ohio. He has published several collections of poetry and was a recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for Fiction. He was also named honorary chancellor of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. You can learn more about Michael J. Bugeia at this Amazon link and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
King Uzziah’s fifty-two year reign over Judah (783 B.C.E.-742 B.C.E.) was generally one of peace and prosperity. Under the king’s leadership, Judah rose up from a state of near collapse to economic expansion, military might and international prestige. But, as always, there was a price to be paid. Greater national security required the expansion of royal power. Entrance into international commercial commerce bred a new merchant class and an economy hostile to subsistence farmers. Land that had for centuries been passed down from generation to generation within tribal clans was now being bought up at fire sale prices leaving the traditional owners destitute. This injustice did not escape the prophet’s notice:
“Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are mad to dwell alone in the midst of the land.” Isaiah 5:8.
As might be expected, the death of Uzziah unleased a great deal of sorrow and anxiety. That was normal, of course, for near eastern monarchies where the passing of the king frequently led to fierce struggles for power within the royal family for succession to the throne, sometimes resulting in civil war. But there was more at stake than political stability. The age of petty kingdoms such as Judah was coming to an end. The age of empires was dawning. Already the ascendant Assyrian Empire was beginning to cast its shadow over the region. Uzziah’s son and successor, Jotham, followed the path of neutrality and isolationism in order to spare his country from war. His grandson, Ahaz, would not have the luxury of this option. Isaiah saw perhaps more clearly than any of his contemporaries the change that was coming over the world. Yet in his vision, he is reminded that the true throne is the one occupied by the Lord of Hosts. So the real issue is not who will sit upon the throne of Judah now that Uzziah has died, but who occupies the throne in heaven and whose glory truly fills the earth. The God of Israel, the Lord of Hosts is the only true king. Vs. 5.
This passage is the only scriptural reference to “seraphim.” They are described as six-winged creatures who attend the Lord of Hosts and intone his praises. It is interesting to note that the fiery serpents sent to punish Israel’s faithless complaining in the wilderness are called “seraphs.” Numbers 21:4-9. This has led some scholars to identify them with a six winged demonic figure holding a serpent in either hand portrayed at an archeological site at Tell Halaf. Gaster, T.H., Angel, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 132. The fiery bite of the serpents in the Numbers account leads to death unless resort is made to the bonze replica of these creatures fashioned by Moses. Here, too, the seraphim touch the prophet’s mouth with a burning coal from the altar which by all rights should inflict severe pain and injury, but instead cleanses him of sin and emboldens him to speak. Vs. 8.
The prophet’s response to his vision reflects the very heart of his calling: “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” Vs. 5. The prophet does not stand above his/her people hurling righteous condemnation. To the contrary, s/he stands with his/her people, knowing that s/he shares their sin. The judgment s/he proclaims will be on his/her own head also and so is uttered with tears. The prophet can speak only because his/her “unclean lips” have been cleansed. Vs. 7.
Although this vision unfolds in the temple, it is much too big for any such architectural setting. The Lord of hosts is “high and lifted up.” His train alone fills the entire temple. Vs. 1. When the Lord speaks, “the foundations of the thresholds shook.” Vs. 4. The fragileness of the temple and, by extension, the kingdom of Judah and the rest of the world in the presence of such a Being is hard to miss. While God might honor the temple with God’s self-revelation, there can be no containing God there!
I cannot see any reason for including this wonderful text in the lectionary for Trinity Sunday other than the seraphims’ cry of “Holy, Holy, Holy” which evidently inspired the Trinity Sunday hymn by that name. Nonetheless, as is evident throughout the prophetic books, the word of God is sent to God’s people through the mouth of the prophet, a word that is as much action as speech and thus an extension of God’s self. The word sent to Israel by the prophets is, according to the New Testament witness, the Word made flesh and the Son who is sent into the world for the life of the world by the Father. Thus, it is quite possible to move from this text to a discussion of the Trinity.
I have commented on this psalm before, most recently in my post of post of Sunday, January 11, 2015. For my thoughts on textual, formal and interpretive issues, you might want to revisit it.
As I read this psalm through the lens of Trinity Sunday, I am struck by the attribution of so much activity to the “voice” of the Lord. Again, ours is a God who speaks. Yet much of what God has to say through natural phenomenon like storms is unintelligible unless proclaimed through the lips of human witnesses. What, for example, do we glean from witnessing a hurricane? Power, to be sure. But raw power is an attribute shared by every tyrant, bully and thug. That God has more of it than anyone else is hardly comforting if that is all we know. The psalm must therefore be read in the context of the canonical narrative. This God of the storm is the God who used the might of his arm to liberate a people from slavery and bring them up into freedom. This thundering God is the God who made a covenant with the earth promising never to use divine might to annihilate it. This psalm testifies not only that God is powerful, but that God can be trusted to use power to redeem, sanctify and heal.
That probably does not answer all of the questions we might have about God’s will and purpose in the wake of a devastating hurricane, tornado or earthquake. But it assures us that God is at work in such horrific events turning them to God’s own redemptive purposes. The word that goes out from God is always the Word made flesh, the Son sent into the world for the life of the world.
For my take on Paul’s letter to the Romans generally, see my post for Sunday, June 22, 2014. Here Paul is contrasting the life of faith in Jesus Christ with the life of bondage under “law.” It is critical to understand here that Paul is not speaking of law as “Torah,” or the totality of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. It cannot be overemphasized that Israel’s covenant with God was emphatically based upon God’s mercy, compassion and grace. Paul is using the term “law” to characterize the quality of one’s relationship with God apart from grace. If the Torah is understood not as God’s gift, but rather a tool by which to win God’s approval or a source for boasting of one’s special status before God, it leads only to death and condemnation. For both Jewish and Gentile believers, adoption as God’s people is based on God’s election and God’s mercy alone.
In sum, “law” as Paul uses it here represents an attitude of entitlement before God based on one’s lineage or accomplishments. Even the good news of Jesus Christ can become “law” if it is preached as a demand, requirement or condition of God’s mercy, i.e., “You have to believe in Jesus to be saved.” Such preaching makes faith a condition that we must satisfy to placate God rather than a gift of the Holy Spirit that sets us free from the need for such placation. Faith is not a condition of salvation, but the thankful response of a forgiven heart to the good news about what Jesus has done for it. For Paul, faith comes through the preaching of the good news about Jesus and is inseparable from that preaching. Romans 10:5-17. Life in the Spirit of God is the very antithesis of life in bondage to “law,” however conceived. The requirement to “measure up,” is gone. The struggle is no longer to become worthy of adoption as God’s children, but rather to conform our lives to the ways of the holy people God has already declared us to be.
Paul contrasts “slavery” with “sonship” to distinguish these two ways of living. A slave has no legal standing in the household. S/he is merely property of his/her master that may be sold at any time. Thus, if a slave desires to remain in the household, s/he must constantly be demonstrating his/her worth and value to the master. The life of a slave is one of fear, anxiety and uncertainty. A son, however, belongs to the household and can address the father fearlessly with the intimate term “Abba.” Vs. 15. Of course, the son or daughter owes his/her father obedience and respect. But that is far different than the servile need of a slave to please his/her master to remain in his/her good graces. The son or daughter is already in the father’s good graces and has no need to earn his love.
The “Spirit” of which Paul speaks is the source of that confidence a believer has to address God as “Abba.” Just as Augustine would say that the Holy Spirit is the love binding the Father and the Son, Paul I think would say that the Spirit is the love binding the believer to God in Christ Jesus. It is the desire of God to share with us the Trinitarian life of love experienced between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Again, my formal, textual and interpretive comments on this text can be found in my post of Sunday, March 16, 2014. You might want to revisit these.
Focusing on this passage from the standpoint of Trinity Sunday, I am drawn to verses 16-17. Our God is the God who speaks. God is known because God makes God’s self known to us. The sending of the Son is but the intensification of God’s speaking God’s word, so much so that this “Word” became flesh in order to dwell or sojourn among us. John 1:14. God is not merely as good as God’s word. God is God’s Word.
Jesus’ words about the Spirit are elusive for Nicodemus, but that is precisely because his words are unintelligible apart from the Spirit. As last week’s reading informed us, it is the role of the Spirit to lead us into all the truth. John 16:13. It is the Spirit that takes what belongs to Jesus-which is “all” that the Father has-and imparts it to the disciples. John 16:13-14. Although Nicodemus says he knows that Jesus is a “teacher” come from God, he is light years away from knowing or understanding that Jesus is the Son sent from the Father. To obtain such understanding, Nicodemus must be born from above, that is, born of God. Vs. 3. Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus, thinking that he is speaking of some sort of human rebirth. Naturally, then, when Jesus begins speaking to him about the Spirit, he cannot follow. Nicodemus is literally chasing after wind.
We never discover whether Nicodemus ever understood Jesus’ final word to him, namely, that God so loved the world that God sent his Son into the world to save it. Indeed, until we reach the Farewell Discourses it will not become clear to us as readers that the sending of the Son is the outpouring of the Father’s love for him (the Spirit) upon the world. John 17. God desires to draw us into the very love that is the life of the Trinity: “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” John 17:25-26. That Nicodemus felt the pull of that love is evidenced by his defense of Jesus before the council of religious leaders in Jerusalem and his participation in the burial of Jesus. John 7:50-52; John 19:38-42.