What do Christians refer to when they talk about God? Is God simply a name used to refer to the creator and architect of the universe? We do believe that God is the creator of all things visible and invisible, but that isn’t all we mean when we say “God.” We don’t believe God simply created the universe, wound it up like a big clock, and walked away. Rather we believe that God created human beings to be in relationship with himself and that when we sinned and turned our back on God, God came in the flesh to rescue and redeem us. God is our creator, but he is also our incarnate redeemer. God’s relationship with the world is not isolated to a single intervention either; we believe he has always been at work in the world as the Lord and giver of life, the one who has spoken through the prophets, and that he continues to work in the world, especially through the Church, to make all things new. God is our creator, our redeemer, and our sanctifier. These aren’t just different functions of a single individual but unique persons. We are baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and we confess that God is three persons but one God. Confused yet?
Let’s get some help from Saint Patrick:
If you missed that, he said:
“The Trinity is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by human reason but is understood by faith and is best confessed in the words of the Athanasian Creed which states that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance. That we are compelled by the Christian faith to confess that each distinct person is God and Lord and that the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one equal in glory, coequal in majesty.”
To some the doctrine of the Trinity is a hopelessly academic and obscure doctrine with no practical implication to life. They would argue that the doctrine of the Trinity is an antiquated bit of obscure theology that belongs in dusty old books of medieval scholasticism.
For instance Thomas Jefferson wrote, “It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three, and the three are not one . . . (this is my favorite part) But this constitutes the craft, the power and the profit of the priests.”
Critics of the Trinity, such as Jefferson, argue that it is superstitious baggage added to the simple gospel of a God of love. How should we respond to these charges?
First, the doctrine of the Trinity is not something tacked on to the Biblical God but a revelation of a mystery that is present from the very first page of the Bible on. In the first verse of the first book of the Bible we read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth.” That is God the Father, the creator. In the next verse we read about how the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. In the Third verse God speaks and brings the world into being. As the Gospel of John tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” The Word through which God makes all things is God the Son. In the beginning, before the world was made there was the Father, the Spirit, and the Son.
In the creation story, God even speaks to himself in plural pronouns saying, “Let us make human beings in our image.” It is difficult to know exactly what the original authors intended when they wrote these words, but the Church Fathers recognized that God was working in the text beyond what the authors may have intended to say. These words are revelation and are best understood in light of Christ. What was hidden in the Old Testament is reveled in the appearance of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. The Early Church were convinced that they must affirm both monotheism and the full divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was through this theological tension that the doctrine of the Trinity was articulated as we understand it today.
Second, Everyone is quite happy to affirm that God is love, but that truth loses its meaning unless we believe that God is also triune. It is one thing to say that God loves us or that he loves the world, but it is something very different indeed to say that God—in his very nature and from all eternity—is Love. Love never exists on its own. By its very nature Love is directed towards others. Even before creation God was love, because in the very being of God he is both the Lover, the beloved, and the love that they share.
As our two Irish friends have taught us, we have to be wary of analogies because none of them quite capture the truth of the Trinity. This one breaks down as well. Speaking of the Holy Spirit in terms of love that binds together the lover and beloved can make the Spirit seem impersonal. Indeed all of the images we have of the Spirit tend to be impersonal, such as a dove, wind, or flame. There is a certain hiddenness or shyness to the person of the Spirit. The way I see it is that the person of the Holy Spirit is a lot like my eyeglasses. When I am wearing them I can only perceive the barest outline of them, but by them I see everything else. It is the same with the Spirit. We may not perceive him clearly, but it is through him we see Christ and in Christ we see the Father.
If the Holy Spirit is a bit less clearly perceived than Father and Son he is nevertheless a person. A 12th century theologian named Richard of Saint Victor argued that for love to be perfect the love of the lover and beloved must be shared with another person, there must be a “co-beloved.” After the birth of our first child, this was made clearer to me than ever before. When I married April I thought that I finally understood what love was, but there was still more to discover. I understand love even more now that I’ve seen the love that we share take concrete expression in our children. First our daughter Helen, and now in the new baby we are expecting as well.
Left to themselves, lovers can grow insular and possessive. Even if they never have children, I am convinced that if a relationship is to flourish a couple must turn their love also to others. In the Holy Spirit, the Love of the Father and the Son finds expression in a third person unique in himself. This love in turn overflows in creation and is poured out on all the world.
In our reading from Genesis we learn that God created human beings in his own image and he made them both male and female. It is not good for us to be alone. Human beings are fundamentally relational and this is expressed even in our bodies which were made to relate to one another. God could have designed us to reproduce like worms by splitting in half, but instead he ordained that we be fruitful and multiply through this coming together of male and female, this unity of diversity. Our fundamentally relational nature is part of what it means to be made in the Image of God.
This brings us to our Third and final point (let us keep things Trinitarian). The doctrine of the Trinity has enormous implications for everyday life. The practical application is very closely related to our second point about love and relationships.
Those who want a non-Trinitarian God, whether they realize it or not, enshrine selfishness and tyranny as the highest virtues! If God is a solitary, all-powerful monarch, fixated on his own glory, than in order to be like God we would need to aspire to those same characteristics. Godliness would be about being powerful and having things our own way. But If God is love, If God is himself a kind of family or society, devoted to glorifying each other--if God is Trinity--we need to love one another! When we realize that God is Trinity we see that togetherness, cooperation, and even sacrifice are grounded in the very nature of God. When we realize God is Trinity we see also that there is room for diversity in unity. We don’t all have to be the same, but we can be unified despite our differences.
Glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be world without end! Amen.