I think theology is kind of like a quilt. All the different parts are related to the other parts and if one part of the quilt is missing the quilt loses something vital (and makes for a cold spot on a cold night!). One of the problems in describing a quilt is where to start. The same is true in talking about essentials of faith. How does a Christian talk about God without starting by talking about the Bible? And how does one talk about the Bible without first talking about God?
The other problem is how to talk about these topics in a short post. Volumes are written on the Trinity. I’m going to limit myself to just a few observations.
I believe believing in the Trinity is an essential for being a Christian. There are a variety of practical reasons for that but I will get into those reasons in later posts.
God is one God in three persons. To use the specific language of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father . . .” The language about the Trinity and doctrine of the Trinity were developed to talk about the relationship between God the Father and Jesus. The intent of the writers was to say that Jesus is also God. But they wanted to hold onto Jewish monotheism on the one hand and say that Jesus is God on the other. Thus we come to the Trinity.
Some scholars say that the only appropriate way to talk about the Trinity is to talk about the economic Trinity, how we see God at work on earth. This can be slippery and so must be done with care. While early creeds like this one speak as if the Father is creator the Bible says that the Son and the Spirit participated in creation. We need to describe God as God in relation to the universe and specifically in relation with humanity. That, after all, is mostly what the Bible is all about: God’s loving pursuit of and relationship with humans. So we see God described as creator in various places in the Bible. We see God described as redeemer, the one who makes covenants with humans and who keeps covenant promises even when humans break covenant promises. We see God as the one who is present, as one scholar put it in the title of his book, The God who is there.
But different persons of the Trinity come to the fore as God does different things. When it comes to redemption, Jesus comes to the fore, even though the Father and the Holy Spirit are also intimately involved. When it comes to God speaking and being present the Holy Spirit often comes to the fore.
Thus we meet the persons of the Trinity in the actions of God. But God is more than actions.
One of the problems we can run into when talking about the Trinity is that we may lean too far in talking about God as one or too far in talking about God as three. I love the Eastern Orthodox idea that the persons of the Trinity are together in love, overwhelming love. They suggest that the creation of the universe happens because of the overwhelming love between the persons of the Trinity. But this image, if taken alone, suggests that God is really three. On the other hand, we can so talk about God as if there is only one God and we only see different aspects or faces of God. Thus the early Church condemned Patripassionism, the idea that God is only one and that we see the one God doing different things. The balance must be maintained.
I know this is very short and skips over a lot of issues about the doctrine of the Trinity. But I can’t write I book on John’s blog! I already wrote an 8 page post one time and I’m trying to avoid doing that again!
Two more quick assertions: we must be careful as we name the persons of the Trinity. Last year the PCUSA General Assembly received a report on the Trinity. There was a lot of controversy because the report seemed to say that we can use a variety of names for the persons of the Trinity. I think that the writers meant to talk about analogies about the Trinity. Nevertheless some of the images were just weird and some of them bordered on describing God as God is not. Calling the Holy Spirit the life giving womb suggests that creation is somehow part of God or a child of God, moving toward panentheism, something I think is beyond the bounds of Christianity.
So let’s be specific: the Bible uses a whole lot of analogies to talk about God and the persons of the Trinity. Jesus uses the analogy of a mother hen who wants to gather her chicks under her wings to describe himself. Prophets and poets use images like fire and wind to talk about God. The Bible says that God comes in a still small voice and that the Holy Spirit comes as a dove, fire and the wind. These are all analogies and images, not names.
The appropriate name for the one God is YHWH, the God who is or the God who is present. The appropriate names for the persons of the Trinity are Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These are the appropriate names because Jesus tells us to call the Father Father. The Father calls Jesus Son. And the Holy Spirit is named the Spirit or Holy Spirit all over the place in the Bible. We can use analogies to describe God but we need, particularly in the context of worship, to name God as God tells us to name God. None of this suggests that God is male. After all, God is Spirit and therefore does not have sexual characteristics. But we must, when naming God, use the names that the Bible gives us. Analogies are one thing. Names are another.
Finally, the doctrine of the Trinity is more than just speculation. The early Church came to talk about God as one and three because of issues about salvation. Can Jesus really bring forgiveness to humans without being human and God? For the early Trinitarians the doctrine had immense practical value.
If ya’ll want to tell me what I left out, go ahead! Like I said, I’m trying to keep this short.
I believe in the Trinity.
Grace and Peace