The Triune God
Preacher: The Revd Stephen Padfield
22 May 2016, 10:30 (Trinity Sunday)Today is Trinity Sunday; a day when we remember that the God we worship is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is a day that preachers often dread. How is it possible to say something coherent about the divine mystery that is the Trinity? Certainly trying to understand it would lead us into various theological knots, yet we can’t get away from the fact that we worship a Trinitarian God. It is at the heart of our Christian faith.
As Saint Augustine said in the 4th century; anyone who denies the Trinity is in danger of losing their salvation, yet anyone who tries to understand it is in danger of losing their mind. Indeed, it took nearly 300 years for the Christian church to complete the Nicene Creed, which aims to state who the Trinity is and what we believe it to be. 300 years is a long time. Augustine, again, while puzzling over the doctrine of the Trinity, was supposedly walking along a beach one day when he observed a young boy with a bucket, running back and forth to pour water into a hole he had dug. (I assume they had bucket and spades in the 4th century). But Augustine asked the boy, “What are you doing?” to which the boy replied, “I’m trying to put the ocean into this hole.” The story goes that it was only then that Augustine realized that in his search for understanding he had been trying to put an infinite God into his finite mind.
Following his example, perhaps we are not supposed to understand the Trinity – at least, not in its fullness. The three in one, the one in three. One God, but three persons. Three persons, yet one God. 1+1+1 equalling 1. No wonder we are sometimes thought of as polytheists, or worshippers of an idea that doesn’t make sense.
But at the risk of tying us up into some of those theological knots this morning, it is possible to say some things about the Trinity, even if like the dark side of the moon, there are aspects we cannot see or understand. I thought I would stick to the theme and briefly talk about three aspects of the Triune God this morning;
THE TRINITY IN SCRIPTURE
THE TRINITY IN THEOLOGY
THE TRINITY IN PRACTICE
The word Trinity of course is not there in the Bible. It is however suggested, with those three persons of the Godhead interacting with the world and his people. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel that was read this morning, the early disciples are told to go forth and baptise people in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. So the idea of the three persons was around from very early on in the Christian faith. Yet, Christianity was not preaching a new God. The God of Israel who revealed himself to his people in the Old Testament is the same God who appears in the Gospels and Letters of the New.
And it is the God who is emphatically one. Deuteronomy 6:4 is a frequently cited verse of the Torah, known as the Shema , forming the bedrock of the monotheistic faiths; ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is ONE’. Christianity is a monotheistic faith. Yet, even in the Old Testament, the plurality of God, if that’s an appropriate term, hints towards the Trinity.
God is referred to, in Hebrew, in the plural, with names like Elohim. The angel of the Lord appears to people as God yet not identical with the God who remains in Heaven. There is the work of the Holy Spirit anointing prophets, priests and kings.
In the New Testament, the Son of God walks on the earth, and the Holy Spirit is sent at Pentecost. Despite not using the word Trinity, it is much easier to see the Trinity being revealed in New Testament times.
But how to go from these scriptural references and revelations to a theology of the Trinity? Many twists and turns were taken as the Christian church established the nature of the Trinity, and how the Son and the Spirit fitted into this idea. Before an established and universal doctrine was adopted – if indeed it ever has been – the early Christian church had to hold this tension between the three persons and the one God.
Throughout those early centuries of Christianity, a number of ideas were put forward about the Trinity, some of which were later condemned as heresy. What needed to be done was to work out who Jesus was and how that worked in relationship to God. Did Jesus have to be God to be the Messiah? The Gospel writers were certainly leaning in that direction, with John being very explicit that Jesus and God were one. But what did it mean to be one? Jesus had a body. So was his body God? Or was it just his spirit that was God? What about Jesus taking humanity back into God? And who died on the cross for that matter? Was it God, or was it the human Jesus? Did it matter? You can begin to see the problem!
One of the early heresies was called modalism. It took a number of forms, but in essence it was the belief that God was indeed Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but that he would change modes. Sometimes he was God the Father, then at other times he was God the Son, and then God the Holy Spirit. He was one God but appeared in different forms – maybe a bit like Dr Who. The problem was that the Father and Son clearly had a relationship to one another in Scripture as separate persons, so this idea soon fell out of favour.
A second, more common heresy, stemmed from the beliefs of Arius, a Christian from Alexandria, a city now in modern day Egypt. Arius taught that Jesus had a beginning. There was a time that the Son did not exist. In other words, he was not of the same substance as the Father. It is what Jehovah’s Witnesses for example teach today. Christ was indeed the firstborn of all creation, the highest ranking of all created beings, but he was subject to God because he was not God. Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, a hugely important voice in the development of Trinitarian ideas, challenged this belief, stressing the oneness of God, while maintaining the three distinct Persons of the Godhead.
It was because of this Arian controversy, that the Council of Nicea was convened in 325 AD. Three hundred bishops were in attendance. The council rejected Arianism and adopted a statement of belief that we would recognise in the different versions of the Creed we say today. Jesus, the Son was the same homo-ousion or substance as the Father. Coeternal, consubstantial. In essence, they were the same. Begotten, not made, of one being with the Father we say. The Holy Spirit was given the same status, but it wasn’t until the Council of Constantinople in 381 that the equality of the Holy Spirit was made clear in the Creed. We believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father….dot dot dot…and the Son, at least that’s the Western Creed. The Eastern church maintained that the Holy Spirit only proceeded from the Father. Complex stuff for which you will need to look up the filoque controversy.
So the Trinity is hard to understand, and hard when wanting to find practical ways of expressing the Trinity in our daily lives. There are certainly analogies that help us along the way. The three leafed clover, water as ice, steam and liquid, the one person being a mother, a wife and a daughter at the same time. Analogies that help us think about the Trinity, but of course each fall short in their own way.
I was musing on this sermon whilst doing a duty in the boys’ Boarding House the other day, when a bright young man walked in and we started talking about the Triune God. As you do. Being a bright young man, he explained to me that a three-sided shape was the simplest form of a two-dimensional shape, and the strongest shape found in nature. I thought that was rather wonderful. Our natural world reflects the Trinity, affirming the link between that which is created and our creator.
A few weeks ago, I witnessed the most amazing sunset. I happened to be in Morrison’s car-park, but above the buildings of Strood there was creation in all her glory. What a beautiful scene, I thought. The sun, as we know, brings us heat and light. But to do this, we are told that the core of the sun sits at 27 million degrees Celsius. The pressure there is 340 billion times what it is here on Earth. And in the sun’s core, that insanely hot temperature and unthinkable pressure combine to create nuclear reactions. In each reaction, 4 protons fuse together to create 1 alpha particle, which is 0.7 percent less massive than the 4 protons. The difference in mass is expelled as energy, and after one million years, through a process called convection, this energy from the core of the sun finally reaches the surface, where it’s expelled as heat and light – which flooded Morrison’s car-park on that particular evening. And there was me just enjoying a nice sunset!
We don’t need to know how the sun works in order to benefit from its goodness.
And it’s the same with the Trinity. We may not be able to fully understand how the Trinity works. But we do know that the Trinity has at its core a relationship. God is a God of relationship. These are three persons, not three states or three inanimate forces. They relate to one another, as do we. We have community and family because of the Triune God.
John Wesley once said: “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and I will show you a man that can comprehend the triune God!” We may only ever attain a small comprehension of the Trinity, yet we are reminded that the real call for us as Christians is to enter into the Trinity, to remember that the relational Trinity indwells us – that the Father, the Son and the Spirit live in us and encourage us to enter into that dynamic relationship that has forever been the essence of the Godhead, the God who continually draws us into relationship, a God who is not an inanimate concept, but a loving, wonderful and faithful God.
I end with some words from Sam Storms, an American Christian writer;
God created us so that the joy He has in Himself might be ours. God doesn’t simply think about Himself or talk to Himself. He enjoys Himself! He celebrates with infinite and eternal intensity the beauty of who He is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And we have been created to join the party!