Musing on the Trinity

I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  (Exodus 3:6, NRSV, reading for Trinity Sunday Year B, Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church)

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)

A few years ago, when I was teaching introductory theology to  Ordained Local Ministers in the Diocese of Canterbury, the final essay for the class was to write an essay about a particular doctrine as articulated through the eyes of a single historically important theologian.  I asked each student to explain why they had chosen this particular teaching.  One of the sharper studenst chose the Trinity, and explained her choice by saying that she would be required to uphold the 39 Articles when she took her ordination vows.  The first of those articles reads as follows:

Of Faith in the Holy Trinity

There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

I don’t remember the specific contents of her essay, or even what theologian she chose (it was probably either Augustine or Aquinas–someone who wrote on practically every aspect of Christian belief up to their point in history).  But I do remember how seriously she took the promises she would soon be making, and her desire to understand more clearly the content of what she was required to uphold.

Unfortunately, the Trinity is the one doctrine that is so muddled that almost any attempt to explain how God is One yet also Three, descends quickly into heresy.  And Trinitarian Heresies seem to be the ones Christians fall into the most often.

Although the formulation of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” appears quite a lot in the New Testament, the term “Trinity” is not used in the Christian Scriptures.  Trinitarian concepts are foreshadowed in the Bible, but articulation of the doctrine begins around the second century of the Christian era.  Indeed, it was hotly debated, and when Constantine declared Christianity to be a tolerated  religion in the Roman Empire by the Edict of Milan in 313, it became apparent that unifying the Empire using religion would be difficult unless this key concept could be clearly articulated and agreed.  That was the point of the First Council of Nicea in 325. This eventually led to repression of differing viewpoints, further definition of heresy, and the Nicene Creed, which is regularly recited in liturgical churches to this day.

Much of the difficulty involved in talking about Trinity is that somehow we divide God into distinct parts or actions, or ascribe particular characteristics to each of the three persons, or explain Three-in-One and One-in-Three in reference to our experience of God.  We experience God in various ways, and say which of these ways is particularly the province of one of the Persons.  Or we try to explain how the three Persons relate to one another (which I think is particularly arrogant, because we are not part of the inner circle of God).

Reading the Old Testament lesson for Trinity Sunday, Year B, according to the lectionary of the Episcopal Church (above), I wonder if we have not spent nearly enough time thinking about what the Trinity does to, and tells us about . . . us.

In the passage from Exodus, God tells Moses something that doesn’t make sense:  the God of Abraham (who is the God of Abraham’s son through the slave Hagar, Ishmael, as well, who is worshipped by Moses’ father-in-law Jethro) is also the God of Moses’ own father.  But at this point in the Exodus narrative, Moses knows only that he is a member of the Egyptian royal family.  Their gods are so different from the god of the children of Abraham worshipped by the Israelite slaves–how can the god of Moses’ family be the same as the god of their slaves? It’s an uncomfortable nonsense that cannot be true according to Moses’ own self-understanding.

Likewise, Jesus tells Nicodemus that those born of the Spirit can expect a lot of unsettlement in their lives, being blown at the apparent whim of the wind, not knowing from where they have come or to where they will be taken.  Another uncomfortable nonsense, incompatible with human self-understandings that we have a great deal of control over our lives.

Musing on the Trinity means that we can’t feel in control of our lives before the mystery and complexity of God.  We have to give up explaining how the Three relate to each other in perfect Oneness, and accept that the Trinity which we affirm is going to unsettle and disturb us and make a nonsense of what we believe of our selves and our lives.

At least, for now.


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