Trinity Definity

I emailed a complaint to the presenter of a National Radio hymn programme this week. She had introduced the fact that it was Trinity Sunday, the Sunday following Pentecost that for centuries has been marked by Christians as a time to especially celebrate God’s three-fold way (father , son spirit) of being godself. So far, so good; I appreciate a Sunday morning reminder about what the rest of the Church is doing, now that I am serving in a non-liturgical (Baptist) context. Then she said we were going to hear Reginald Heber’s wonderful old hymn Holy Holy Holy, which makes special mention of the Trinity. So far, so better; I love this hymn and know it off by heart, but don’t get to sing it very often these days. Then the presenter played the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing that hymn, and to my indignation instead of the lines:
God in Three persons, Blessed Trinity!
I heard the words:
God in his glory, Blessed Deity!

I quickly realised of course that was because the Trinity is not part of the Mormon faith, and jumped out of bed to flick off an email expressing my concern. Play that version any other week, I said, but not on Trinity Sunday! (Strangely, the prompt response next day pointed to the shorter length of that version as the reason for the choice). Not every follower of Jesus is as precious as me about issues of systematic theology, but some are even more so. Myk Habets, one of the theology lecturers at Carey Baptist College recently blogged about the fact that he regularly talks to his three year old daughter Sydney in Trinity language. I can't find the original now but it has been republished in a Scottish blog. Here is an excerpt:

The word ‘God’ is perfectly fine, but it lacks any specificity and is, at best, impersonal, at worst it is an idea or concept divorced from the triune God of the Bible. So this is what we pray. ‘Dear God the Father in heaven, and God Jesus Christ in heaven, and God the Holy Spirit who lives inside me..... I trust it is obvious what I am doing but let me spell it out... I am using the word ‘God’ in reference to the triune God who is intensely personal. This will (hopefully!) avoid Sydney having any ideas that God is an impersonal force, or energy or that he is static. I am using the personal names for God – ‘Father,’ ‘Son’/’Jesus Christ,’ ‘Holy Spirit’ – in personal ways and in differentiated ways, so that she develops the habit of thinking of God as three persons but one being.... I am hoping this will forestall any individualistic notions of her Christianity and yet develop within her an intimacy with the triune God of grace.

Although I admire Myk's aspiration to present to his children a robustly Trinitarian worldview, I find this paradigm oddly mechanistic for use with a three year old, since I spend several days a week with children of this age. He may be able to quote Scriptures to support the claim that Jesus is in Heaven and the Spirit is on earth, but it seems to me he is missing the point of the mystery that human beings have dubbed the Trinity. That point is that the three ways of being of God are not fixed but rather free-flowing in a mysterious way for which recent commentators have reappropriated an ancient term called perichoresis - a dance of love. In that profound expression of community, Myk's child and my children can pray to Jesus (or the Father or Spirit) both on earth, and in glory, whatever that means.

Jesus never gave a specific teaching on the Trinity. The word was coined in the fourth century to describe what the followers of Jesus had experienced in their relationship with the Creating Sustaining Delivering God, with the earthly Jesus, and with the gifted Companion, the Holy Spirit. Somehow they had to make sense of this man who did the things only God can do (create, judge, forgive) and who then remained with them in a real way even after his bodily existence had been superseded by resurrection and ascension. These people were mostly Jews, who down the centuries would willingly give their life for the principle that God is One, in contrast to the pantheon of gods adored in the pagan religions of their neighbours. Nevertheless, Jews had experienced Yahweh's presence in ways that pointed to plurality. Most Christians can point to the three visitors in Abraham's saga, and the extra man walking around in the flames of Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace. But we are not all aware that Judaism believed in a number of intermediaries who interceded between God and Israel, such as Wisdom, and the Shekinah /glory, or that the Kabbalistic rabbis speak of "the mystery" of the number three. And when we reenact a Jewish Passover, who among us is not taken aback by the hiding of three pieces of bread which are "resurrected" later in the meal. In the New Testament we find writers flowing freely between Father, Son and Spirit, in a relationship that cannot be mechanically defined. There is something here that can't easily be summed up in terms that suit a threeyearold mind.

Perhaps when you hear the word Trinity you think:
  • tricky concept
  • hard to comprehend
  • difficult to explain
  • cerebral
  • mysterious
  • a spiritual reality that’s easier experienced than understood

Yes, its all of these – and no doubt you have heard preachers like me expound the doctrine year after year with metaphors of shamrocks and steam kettles. Trinity reminds us that God is bigger, more mysterious, more inscrutable than the images or concepts we humans have of him. One person compared it with a cube, of which we can only ever see three faces; three faces remain hidden, like the dark side of the moon, we can only guess what’s going on behind what we see. But I guess that mystery is part of why god is god; if we knew everything about him he wouldn’t be God.

For adult imaginations, I find the analogy in Dorothy Sayers' book The Mind of the Maker helpful. God the Father is the Idea, or Essence, of all reality, the "I am who I am". God the Son represents the perfect Expression of that Essence: "the exact representation of his being," "the image of the invisible God." Sayers, a talented dramatist, suggests God wrote a play and set the characters free. Lest the characters spoil the plot, as they are wont to do, God devised ways to enter into their history, becoming "flesh and dwelling among us." At Pentecost, something of God's Essence, the same Spirit who hovered over the waters at Creation, took up residence inside flawed human beings, giving us a new Energy and identity.

Celebrating the Trinity today however is less about the mechanics of how one God can have three personas or roles, and more about the bigger picture – the meta-message – that the Trinity is all about God in loving community. From Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, the Bible teaches us that the God in whose image we are created, is a God of loving community. That plurality of Father, Son and Spirit is eternally God’s character; God always was and always will be, a community – a small group. Within that group there is distinctive individuality – but God is not and never has been an individual. And that has a profound meaning for the human experience. It means that as beings created in Gods image we have deep-seated relational DNA, a community gene. It means every one of us is gravitates towards relationship, we are hard wired with a desire for connection, with God and with each other.

That’s why a church isn’t God’s church unless it is a loving community; that’s why a believer isn’t a fully-orbed Christian until they are part of such a community.

To Chew Over: What do you find helpful about the notion of Trinity? What do you find confusing? Does it matter?

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!

Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;

Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!

God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,

Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;

Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,

Who was, and is, and evermore shall be.

Holy, holy, holy! though the darkness hide Thee,

Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;

Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,

Perfect in power, in love, and purity.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!

All Thy works shall praise Thy Name, in earth, and sky, and sea;

Holy, holy, holy; merciful and mighty!

God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!

Reginald Heber