On the Sunday after Pentecost, the Western Church celebrates Trinity Sunday, which — as the name suggests — commemorates the dogma of the Trinity. In the three-and-a-half years I’ve kept this blog, I’ve yet to address this ancient and venerable — and notoriously confounding — doctrine, that God is simultaneously ‘three’ and ‘one’. So, today I’d like to try to elucidate the Trinity in all of its beauty, wonder, and confusion.
If this topic makes you feel a little anxious or frustrated, you aren’t alone. A lot of Christians – perhaps even a majority – feel the same way. There are few reasons why this might be the case. First, it isn’t a doctrine that seems – at first glance at least – to be super relevant to our lives. It’s easy to wonder how it matters. Second, it’s really difficult to explain well. Not only is the idea of the Trinity an infinite Mystery and so by nature hard to talk about, but also the concrete ways we have inherited to express the doctrine (Essence or Being, Person or Hypostasis, Procession, Begetting) are couched in the language sixteen-hundred-year-old debates – debates and language which don’t really resonate with us today. And this in turn means that, third, a lot of clergy are afraid to teach about it, so the Church has on average done a pretty poor job explaining the Trinity. So, my job today is to at least start the process of loosening some of these difficult knots.
As startling as the doctrine of the Trinity may be considering Christianity’s Jewish origins, it didn’t come out of nowhere. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not a God who was distant and removed from the world, but one who acted and intervened in the world’s affairs. While the Scriptures used many ideas to describe this activity, two of the most important were God’s powers known as God’s Word and God’s Spirit. Thus, as revolutionary as the Christian doctrine of the Trinity was, it also picked up on existing ways of talking about God’s work in the world.
And yet, we see from very early on that something had changed for Christians’ understanding of God. The earliest witnesses we have tell us that this shift was happening not because of a new philosophy but because the Christians had a new and unique experience of God. They were experiencing this same One God in three discrete ways: as Father, as Word (or Son), and as Spirit. They continued to experience God as Father, as the infinite source of life. Yet, they also understood their encounter with Jesus, through his teachings and especially after his resurrection, to be an experience of not just a man, but also of God. The Gospel according to John even frames the birth of Jesus as the incarnation of the very Word of God — which had called the universe into existence and spoken through the Prophets. And, writing at the turn of the second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch felt comfortable referring to Jesus’ blood as “the blood of God” (Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians 1.1). Clearly something big was happening with how these first Christians were understanding God!
Whereas for the Son, it was the divinity of Jesus that was controversial and needed to be discovered, the Spirit’s divinity was well-established in the Scriptures and Jewish tradition. What was new here, was the Personhood of the Spirit — the Holy Spirit as being a discrete instantiation of God. But even in the Gospels, Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would be with them in a special way (e.g., John 14.26, 15.26), and in Acts, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon new believers consistently legitimized their faith in the eyes of the apostles (see Acts 10-11). In the Epistles, in addition to empowering the faithful with spiritual gifts, the Holy Spirit is said to have “brought about your adoption” (Romans 8.15), empower knowledge of the Father and Son (Ephesians 1.17) and provide “access to the Father” (Ephesians 2.18).
But to make this more confusing, these three distinct experiences of God — Father, Son, and Spirit — are, however, never independent of one another. The Son is “begotten” of the Father (Hebrews 5.5), and the Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (John 15.26) and so the Father is the Source of both (as St. Irenaeus put it in the mid-second century, the Son and Spirit are the Father’s two hands). The Son is “incarnate by the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1.20) but the Spirit is sent by the Son (John 20.22). The Spirit falls upon and testifies to the Son (Matthew 3.16), but this testimony is to the Father’s glory. Yet, if we have seen and known the Son, we see and know the Father (John 14.9). And no one can say “Jesus is Lord” but by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12.3). So, these experiences of God as Father, Son, and Spirit were not evidence of three gods, but evidence of One God revealed in three different ways. The three could not be teased apart, but were intimately and intrinsically bound together.
Every act of this One God was an act of the Three; each act of the Three immediately involved the others. We cannot say that the Father is the Creator alone, because the Spirit brooded over the waters at Creation and “renews the face of the ground” and Creation is ordered according to God’s Wisdom and brought into being by God’s Word. Nor can we say that the Incarnation was an act of the Son alone, for the Son was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and begotten of the Father. Likewise, the Son preached and healed and was sent to his cross by the Holy Spirit in obedience to the will of his Father. And, we cannot say that we are made holy by the Spirit alone, for the Spirit unites us to the Father in the Son. Orthodox theologian Fr Thomas Hopko has a beautiful paraphrase of St Gregory Nazianzen about this, saying:
Whenever my mind contemplates any one Person of the Holy Trinity, of the divine Godhead, it immediately goes to the other two. The minute I think of God, I cannot think of the Father without Christ and the Holy Spirit. The minute I think of the Son, I cannot think of him without the Spirit and without the one God and Father. Whenever I think of the Spirit, I know that he is the Spirit of the Son, but he is the Spirit of the Son because he proceeds from the Father and rests on the Son.
This interplay among the Three Persons, this impossibility of teasing them out from one another, is what is called the divine perichoresis, “interpenetration” or “interweaving.” It’s a metaphor from the theater referring to the movements of chorus lines seamlessly weaving in and out of each other. And this divine dance is at the heart of our canonical understanding of the Trinity. It’s also why the Sunday School images and such so-called “alternative” Trinitarian formulations identifying the Persons of the Trinity as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” don’t work. Every act of God is an act of Father, Son, and Spirit together.
Now, left to their own devices, the Church Fathers would have left the doctrine of the Trinity like this. Belief in the Trinity was certainly present from the earliest days of our faith, but it lacked any formal definition, and certainly not one that used any dense, philosophical vocabulary. This understanding of the Trinity based on our experience of God in the Church is what is known as the economic Trinity – economic here in the Greek sense of ‘administration of resources’. And it’s enough and sufficient. So, you can feel free to stop reading here. But, we have inherited technical language to talk about the Trinity, so if you want to learn a bit more about this, please read on.
How then did we get the strange, philosophical definitions found in the Creed? To put it simply, ‘because people.’ Many Christians in the first centuries were well-educated, fluent in and influenced by one or more of the dominant philosophical schools of the day. And from the start, Christians differed in how they thought Christianity should interact with these schools. This conflict first came to a head around the turn of the fourth century, when the bishop of Alexandria, named Arius, started to teach that the Word of God (i.e., the Son, Jesus) could not be divine in the same way the Father is divine. And his motivation for this was entirely about his philosophical commitments and not about the Gospel. Arius’s thought eventually lost out, but this debate set the tone for all major Trinitarian or Christological controversies to come. One side – almost always with a strong philosophical motivation – would take issue with the divinity of the Son or the Spirit (and once that was established, the humanity of Jesus), and the other side would respond by focusing on the Gospel, by telling the story of our salvation. And every time, the side grounding their position in philosophical speculation lost.
But these debates left a legacy in the words and theology behind the Nicene Creed. The Creed bears the battle scars of these debates, in such words as ousia (Essence/Being) and hypostasis (literally ‘instantiation’, but translated as ‘Person’). The point I want to make here is that even though the Creed uses philosophical or technical language, it does so as a rebuke to the philosophical systems, not as an affirmation of them.
In fact, the very people responsible for the articulations of the Trinity that have been handed down to us, were fundamentally suspicious of any attempts at defining the Mystery of God, and particularly of philosophical language. Far from being ivory tower philosophers delighting in idle speculations about things we can never know, the people to whom we owe our formulations of the Trinity were actually mystics, and established the spiritual tradition of the Church as much as its theological tradition. Even as they were developing our technical vocabulary of the Trinity, they insisted that it was in no way ‘adequate’ to the task. They were very aware they were ‘breaking language’ so to speak. St. Basil, for example, while insisting that while the Trinity is both three and one, also insisted that “It isn’t about arithmetic.” St. Gregory Nazianzen undermined his own Trinitarian language of ousia and hypostasis by ‘clarifying’ that “They are unified distinctly and distinct conjointly, paradoxical as the formula may be.” He said this because in much Greek philosophy, the two terms were virtually synonymous. He could find no label for the threeness of God in his language that he liked, so he wedged a distinction between two words where no distinction had existed before! So he was literally breaking the language of Greek philosophy! So then, the very people who formulated and defended the language we use about the Trinity, also insisted that their words and concepts were inadequate to the task. And every concept and word they developed needed to be deconceptualized and unspoken in the face of the infinite mystery of God.
So again, as much as we have inherited these formulas for explaining the Trinity, these formulas really exist to preserve as much as possible the Mystery of God. God is not a riddle to be solved or a puzzle to be pieced together, but a Mystery to be encountered personally. And this is why I believe so strongly that the Trinity is such a vital – life-giving – doctrine for the Church.
The Trinity reveals our God, who is Love: the self-giving love of the Father to the Son and Spirit, the obedient love of the Son to His Father and the Spirit who sends Him, the humble love of the Spirit, ever pointing toward the Son and the Father. Therefore, the doctrine of the Trinity encapsulates the entirety of the Christian way of life, which is as it should be. Our lives as Christians must be grounded in who God is revealed to be, and it is, therefore, fundamentally Trinitarian.
This has been a long and complicated post, but I hope it’s been helpful. Far from an arcane philosophical doctrine, the Trinity lies at the very heart of our faith and our Christian experience of God, as Father, as Son, and as Holy Spirit.