Sunday, 30 May 2010

Some (slightly rushed) thoughts for Trinity Sunday

(What I will be preaching later)
The Trinity — an embarrassing doctrine?
In the Church of England’s calendar, today is Trinity Sunday, but time was when the Church of England seemed to become a bit embarrassed about this.
Indeed the calendar was re-written so that Sundays after Trinity, which run from now until the run-up to Christmas became Sundays after Pentecost.
Pentecost seemed much more in keeping with the new mood of the Church. Pentecost was about experience — present experience of the Spirit in the life of the Church and the believer.
Trinity seemed to be about an obscure doctrine rooted in the Church’s past.
Pentecost was also up to date because of the charismatic movement. The Trinity was just old-fashioned.
On top of that, the Church had been through a period of academic doubt in the 1970s, with the publication of books like The Myth of God Incarnate, to which several prominent Anglican theologians had contributed.
This suggested that Jesus was never meant to be regarded — and certainly never thought of himself — as anything other than a human being, albeit one with an extraordinary sensitivity towards God.
But if Jesus was not God incarnate, then at least one person of the Trinity simply disappeared.
And then on top of that, the Trinity was so hard to explain, as anyone who’d ever invited Jehovah’s Witnesses into their living-room could testify. The evidence for the Trinity seemed to be obscure, and as anyone who has ever recited the Athanasian Creed would know, it all gets a bit tortuous and convoluted.
So for a time, the doctrine of the Trinity became something about which the Church was almost embarrassed. Certainly no-one was in a rush to take on the preaching slot on Trinity Sunday.
Not mathematics ...
One of the reasons for our problems with the Trinity was that the doctrine was always approached in terms of mathematics.
Hymns like ‘Three in one and one in three’ illustrate the problem. If God is one, how can God be three? If God is three, how can God be one?
One of the delights of Trinity Sunday was the various ways in which sermon illustrations would try and get round this. There was the Trinity as shamrock — three leaves on one plant. Or the Trinity as water, steam and ice — three forms of the same substance.
The basic problem with all these illustrations was that they overlooked one important factor — the Trinity is nothing like anything else. The Trinity is one of the things that is definitively ‘of God’ — something where you can’t compare God with anything else.
We should really save ourselves the effort of trying to find something like the Trinity, or trying to make it possible to understand the Trinity by comparing it with anything else.
... but relationship
There is, however, one important way in which we can begin to understand the Trinity in terms familiar to us.
This is something which actually comes from the Eastern churches. In recent years, people have begun to think about the Trinity less in terms of mathematics, more in terms of relationship.
We have to ask, why would anyone come with the doctrine of the Trinity in the first place. As we’ve already seen, it is a very complicated doctrine — unnecessarily complicated, we might say.
The answer lies in the revelation of Jesus — both what he was like and what he said. We get an idea of this from the prayer in John’s gospel that takes up John 17, and it begins with the very first verse:
After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.”
The ‘father-son’ relationship points us towards the existence of the Trinity, and to its nature.
The eternal son
The idea of ‘son of God’ isn’t unique to the New Testament. In the Old Testament, the Messianic king was spoken of as God’s ‘son’. So the phrase in itself meant nothing more than someone in a special relationship with God.
But the way Jesus spoke about the father, clearly suggested a relationship beyond this. So in v 5, Jesus speaks to the Father about ‘the glory I had with you before the world began.’
This already hints at an eternal relationship — one that exists outside time. But it is not just the duration of the relationship that is special, but the quality. So twice in this passage, in vv 11 and 22, Jesus talks of himself and the father being ‘one’. And in v 21 he says to the Father, ‘you are in me and I am in you.’
To put it crudely, it is not just that the Father and the Son have been together a long time, but that they are intertwined. They are ‘one together’.
The technical theological term for this is ‘perichoresis’. I think I’m right in saying it derives from a term meaning ‘dancing round’, but the core idea is that the identity of the persons in the Trinity arises from the relationship with the other persons.
It is easiest to understand this — if we can understand it at all — in the way we speak about ‘father’ and ‘son’.
You can be a person without needing other people. You can be a person on your own, and if the whole world were wiped out whilst you were up in a satellite orbiting the globe you’d still be a person.
But you cannot be a father without a child. You cannot be a son without a parent. So in the godhead, the father actually cannot be the father without the son, and vice versa. The persons of the Trinity are who they are because of the other persons.
And for them to be who they are eternally, the relationships have to be eternal. The father is only the eternal father if there is an eternal son, and vice versa, whilst the Spirit is also caught up in this.
Augustine thought of the Trinity as the eternal love between the Father and the Son. And he is certainly the Spirit who proceeds from the father through the Son.
The centrality of relationship
The Trinity, then, is to be understood relationally, and that lifts the Trinity out of being dry theory to vibrant practice, for if the Trinity is relationship, then relationships are of eternal and fundamental significance.
And this is something else we see in the prayer in John, for at the heart of it, Jesus is praying for his disciples to be caught up in the relationship of the Trinity.
The Trinity is a relationship of ‘oneness in many’, and so Jesus’ prayer is for oneness for the many disciples. In v 11 Jesus prays:
I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name —the name you gave me —so that they may be one as we are one.
This is much more than a ‘prayer for Christian unity’. It is a prayer for the divine character — the disciples are protected by the divine name given to Jesus and used, v 12, to protect them:
While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me.
The church is to be a community in which the divine character — the name of God — is present and recognized. And so this ‘oneness in many’ is also central to mission. So in vv 20-23, we read:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Oneness in many is to be the outcome of mission and the evidence of the truth. And all one can say to that is how very far the church has therefore fallen from the truth!
Transcending ourselves
I began by saying that the character of the Trinity is unique to God, and that is true. We cannot explain the Trinity because there is nothing to explain it by.
However, that is not to say that the character of the Trinity is therefore irrelevant to the world. On the contrary, I have tried to show briefly that it is of the very essence of the world in which we live.
At heart, the Trinity is relational — it is about the eternal interrelationships of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each being what each is because the others exist as who they are.
But the other thing we can say about the Trinitarian God, because God has revealed it to us, is that he seeks out other relationships, to draw others into oneness with one another and with himself.
In other words, the character of the Trinity drives both creation and salvation — it drives the mission of the Church. And so throughout the prayer of John 17, Jesus speaks of being sent by the Father — in 3,8,18,21,23 and 25, and therefore he sends the disciples, who remain in the world (vv 13-18) to continue what Jesus came to do.
And Jesus also speaks of returning to the Father, not in isolation, but preceding the disciples who will also be drawn into the relationship of the Trinity. So although he is no longer remaining in the world, he prays in v 24,
Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
And v 21 expresses this same hope. The prayer is for all the disciples, present and future (and we may certainly add, past), that:
... all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us ...
The indescribable, indefinable Trinitarian relationship is ultimately to be shared. That is the what flows from the nature of that relationship, and that is what should inspire us in our mission for God.
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  1. Thanks John I'm due to preach on the trinity in just over an hour from now and I am relieved to see that at least I've got one or two points in common with your very helpful thoughts!

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  3. Hello Rev. John,

    If you have time to spare, I wonder if you could take a look at my humble blog post where I argued how conjugal and married love is the image of the Triune God of love.


  4. John, I really really enjoyed this post....

    Do you mind if I cross-post it?

  5. Rubati, I've had the briefest of looks at your article. I think it's helpful - and worth developing.

    Some of the ideas remind me of Rowan Williams's 'The Body's Grace' - but for a variety of reasons I wasn't too enamoured with that!

  6. Nicely done, John. Reminds me of Tim Keller's 'The Reason for God'.

  7. Greetings John P Richardson

    On the subject of the Trinity,
    I recommend this video:
    The Human Jesus

    Take a couple of hours to watch it; and prayerfully it will aid you to reconsider "The Trinity"

    Yours In Messiah
    Adam Pastor

  8. I like it Adam, John produces the finest quality musings, I've heard in a long long while, on the wonderous mystery that is the Trinity, and in the process highlights for us the relationship beauty, that is their very essence and splendour.....

    .....and then you provide an aid for him to reconsider his views.

    Absolutely Classic!

    Great is the mystery of faith.

  9. Bill Maher debunks all of this crap in about thirty seconds.

  10. Anonymous, thanks for that profundity! Actually Bill Maher's website took a good deal longer than thirty seconds even to load! However, for those who don't know him in England (which I guess is quite a lot of us) he seems to be a stand up comedian. If you want more, follow the link (and put the kettle on).