By the Rev. Darren Miner
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Episcopal Church has seven principal feasts in its liturgical calendar. As it happens, two of them fall back to back, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. And since last Sunday was Pentecost, this must be Trinity Sunday. This day is the bane of junior clergy, because all too often senior clergy leave it to their juniors to preach on the mystery of the Trinity. Now, there is a way out: one can always preach on the assigned readings instead. But this Trinity Sunday, I have decided to rise to the occasion and say a few words about the central dogma of the Christian faith. Pray that I don’t stray into heresy!
Before you get too anxious, let me reassure you that you are not expected to understand this doctrine fully. No one does! During the reading of the Athanasian Creed, prescribed in the 1662 prayer book, one was asked to repeat these words: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.” George Bernard Shaw was reputed to have added the words: “The whole thing is incomprehensible!” And he had a point; the mystery of God is beyond our understanding. A god that we could fully comprehend would not be the transcendent God of the Bible, but something less.
Given our limitations, why should we even try to understand the nature of God? Well, I can think of two good reasons. One is that we are expected to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind. Moreover, how can we say we love someone if we don’t try to know that someone as profoundly as possible? And so, we do our best to understand what God has revealed about the divine nature. The second reason for trying to understand God is to better understand ourselves. The Bible tells us that we are made in the image and likeness of God. In other words, we are made in the image and likeness of the holy and undivided Trinity. And Trinitarian doctrine, far from being a useless theological exercise, helps us understand our true nature and calling.
As many critics of the doctrine have noted, the Bible never uses the word Trinity. But the New Testament does talk about God as Father, God as Son, and God as Holy Spirit. The early Church experienced God in three different ways. And yet, at the same time, the Church firmly believed in the oneness of the Godhead, as expressed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and as summarized in the Shema, the Jewish pledge of allegiance. Some early theologians dismissed the threeness as appearance only and not as reality. But most theologians firmly believed that both the threeness and the oneness that God had revealed to humankind in salvation history reflected the inner reality of the Godhead. They refused to believe that God dissembled. So they struggled to understand the apparent paradox of the threeness and oneness of God. In the end, the Church Fathers turned to the language of Greek philosophy to express the doctrine of the Trinity. But I will spare you the philosophy lesson!
It took over three centuries of heated debate to iron out an understanding that we might charitably call “the least wrong.” Many approaches were eventually condemned as heresy, because they either overemphasized the threeness or they overemphasized the oneness. For those not versed in Greek philosophy, the Church Fathers often used everyday metaphors and similes to help explain the Trinity. For example, the Trinity is like a three-leaf clover; or the Trinity is like water that can take the form of ice, liquid, or vapor; or my favorite, the Trinity is like three flaming torches, whose flames are combined and which burn as a single flame. But each of these similes ultimately fails if pushed too far and results in an incomplete and unbalanced understanding of God’s nature, in other words, in heresy. The Eastern Church attempted to pictorially represent the Holy Trinity as the three angels that visited Abraham and Sarah, united as one in a common meal. I love this icon! Even so, it seems to me that the threeness of the angels outweighs the oneness of the shared meal in this icon. (Clearly, the Orthodox disagree.)