‘Trinity Term’ – two words which we have all used many times over the last few weeks. But the term ‘Trinity’ – now that is a conundrum. And yet on this particular Sunday, we normally expect to hear a ‘Trinity Sermon’.
There have been countless attempts to explain the belief in ‘One in Three and Three in One’. One I remember from student days was the ‘water analogy’: water is liquid; water is vapour; and water is ice, forming three parts of the same substance. But the problem with this illustration is that liquid, vapour and ice do not simultaneously subsist as ‘water’ – they are three separate aspects of water – yet ‘God as Trinity’ implies there are three persons co-existing at one and the same time.
Another illustration I remember is of one actor playing three parts in one play. Unlike the water analogy, this preserves the notion that God is as One Being, like the one actor – but this time it fails because God as Trinity is also three persons, not one person playing different roles. Similarly, the human analogy, that we are body, spirit and mind, yet one ‘being’, also fails, because it is again about one person in three different roles; an additional difficulty is that at death the body and the mind are separated from the spirit- whereas the Trinity is inseparable and co-eternal.
Perhaps a better analogy is a triangle. The three corners of the triangle are linked to each other by the three sides (1+1+1 = 3) yet make up the one figure (1x1x1 = 1). Yet even for my simple mathematical brain this seems to be too neat; as a theologian, anyway, I have problems, because it does not take into account that God the Son is unlike the Father and Spirit, because He comprises two natures, the human and divine: so the ‘oneness’ of the Son is not the same as the ‘oneness’ of the Father and the Spirit, which, using this geometrical analogy rather crudely, makes one corner of the triangle different from the other two.
Although attempts to describe God the Trinity consistently fail, this doctrine became the benchmark of orthodoxy. From as early as the second century those who stressed too much the unity of God were called ‘Modalists’- because they did not place enough emphasis on Jesus Christ, and because they did not stress enough the decisive break of Christianity from Judaism. Those who stressed too much the distinctive parts of God were termed ‘Tritheists’, because they failed to give due weight to a monotheistic faith, one which is in continuity with Judaism in the common affirmation that there is only one God.
One of the compulsory papers which theology undergraduates take here is called ‘Patristics’. They have to look at early Christian debates about heresy and orthodoxy, and attempt to understand how and why the early Church Fathers formulated Christian doctrines in a particular way. All undergraduates agree that the debates about the Trinity are notoriously difficult to comprehend: the eastern churches emphasized the Father gave life equally to the Son and to the Spirit, but the western churches stressed that the Father and Son together gave life to the Spirit. The western church’s Nicene Creed reads ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son’. The phrase ‘and the Son’ does not occur in the eastern church’s version of this Creed. This different understanding of the interrelationship of the three persons of the Trinity divided a fledgling church, and contributed to the eventual schism between the churches of the east and the west.
I have a satirical cartoon on my door in College which is headed ‘Judge orders God to Break up into Smaller Deities’. It is a send-up about a US District Judge who ruled that God was in violation of the anti-monopoly laws because he wilfully thwarted competition from other deities and so created an ‘illegal monotheopoly’. If God were to allow for a coalition of lesser deities, the Spoof Judge advised, the benefit to worshippers would be vast: with a wider selection of specialized gods and goddesses, there would clearly be a quicker ‘prayer-response’. This ‘tongue-in-cheek’ report is making a serious point: why promote the worship of one God, when the worship of many gods might be a better ‘theological insurance policy’? But surely this misses the point? The doctrine of the Trinity – that God is One in Three, and Three in One – is a safeguard both against polytheism and against monotheopoly.
So, despite its problems, the doctrine of the Trinity actually does make sense. And it should not be surprising that the idea of God being Many and God being One actually existed long before Christianity: it was a vital part of Jewish faith as well, for given that polytheistic cultures also a threat to the writers of the Old Testament, they had to provide a middle way of understanding God as the ‘One in the Many’ and the ‘Many in the One’. Our reading from Genesis chapter 1 throws some light on this. ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.’ The very first three verses of the entire Old Testament already introduce the idea of the different parts of the Godhead bringing creation into being: God the Creator is eternally present ‘in the beginning’; God the Spirit, brooding like a bird over the waters, is the sustainer of the world as it comes into being; and God as spoken Word brings form from the void and light from the darkness.
The same idea of the plurality and diversity within the one Godhead is again expressed later in Genesis 1: ‘And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over… all the earth.’ Why should God speak in the plural form? I believe it shows us how the writer understood enough about the diversity in the Godhead to use plural verbs and plural possessive adjectives. Admittedly, some see this as an expression of polytheism – that God, like the Most High God in surrounding pagan cultures, is addressing a pantheon of deities in his heavenly council. I personally think that the writer of Genesis 1 is too subtle for this. Throughout this chapter he has used a plural name for God – Elohim – but given it, up this point, a singular verb. God makes the sun; there is not another deity, who is the sun. Similarly he makes the moon, and the stars. No other astrological deities exist alongside him. ‘Elohim’ is a rich diversity of many parts; it is a way of stating that God is both One and God is Many.
The Unity and Diversity of God is actually a dominant theme throughout the Old Testament. Within the Temple God is known as ‘Glory’ (in Hebrew, Käböd and Shekinah ); in his relationship with his people, He is known as ‘Redeemer’ (gö´ál) and as ‘everlasting mercy’ (Heºsed ) and as ‘the Lord’ (Adonay); He is also known as wisdom (Hokmâ), and as ‘the voice’ ( häqôl ). And he is simply ‘the name’ ( häšëm ). In surrounding cultures some of these names were referents for separate male and female deities. But in Hebrew, the maleness and femaleness of the many parts of God (‘spirit’ and ‘glory’ and ‘wisdom’ for example are female nouns) are contained in the one Deity. So in Genesis 1: ‘…Let us make humans in our own image’ is a way of expressing how the diversity and unity in the Godhead in a mirror image of the diversity and unity in the humanity he has created.
So this idea of God as One in Many and Many in One surely paved the way for those first Jewish Christians to think about God as Trinity – now as about God as One in Three and Three in One. These first Christians, Jews by birth, already knew that God is Creator and Father of us all; that God could be present in the world through His Word, now ‘made flesh, and dwelling among us’; and that God is Spirit, the rûªH of God -which, because the word also means breath or wind, also describes how the effects of God’s presence are seen in the world.
As an undergraduate I once had to do an essay on whether God could really known as Trinity within the New Testament. The tutor who marked that essay was one George Carey, later Archbishop of Canterbury. I still have that essay, with his comments on it. I would never have dared to disagree with him then, but actually I would now: I think that those early Jewish Christians had a sufficient understanding of God as One and God as Many to deduce that God could be known as Creator, as Redeeming Word, and as lifegiving Spirit. So although the doctrine of the Trinity is incomprehensible, it is, nevertheless, explicable.
‘Incomprehensible but explicable’. We started by seeing how the term Trnity is a conundrum. And we have ended by seeing how the development such a doctrine makes sense. But even so, the Trinity is still, in essence, beyond our understanding. It is one of those mysteries about which T.S. Eliot says: ‘words strain, /Crack and sometimes break under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide and perish/ Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place’.
So to say more about the essence of the Trinity is superfluous. We have to learn to understand this Triune God in a different way. This can only be by faith and human experience, once our intellect and critical analysis have taken us as far as they can. For, ultimately, the mystery of God as Trinity can only be made known to us through contemplative prayer and reflective worship as we meditate on what all three persons of the one God might mean to each of us: ‘Holy Holy Holy, God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity’. So, falling silent before God as transcendent Creator, before God as incarnate Word, and before God as sustaining Spirit, is perhaps as helpful a way to start as any.
And now to God our Creator, God our Redeemer, God our Sustainer, Three Persons in one God, be ascribed, as is most justly due, all honour, might, majesty, power and dominion, now, henceforth and for evermore. Amen.
Dr. Susan Gillingham, Fellow and Tutor in Theology
18th May 2008