In celebration of Holy Trinity Sunday, let’s look at what the Trinity is and how our faith, doubt, and mystery are involved. Hint: while the Trinity is an important doctrine in mainstream, orthodox Christianity, neither understanding nor even accepting it affects God’s gracious, loving relationship with us. I also include a brief reflection on the issue of gender and the Trinity.
Holy Trinity Sunday
The Sunday following our celebration of the day of Pentecost is Holy Trinity Sunday. The doctrine of the Trinity has been celebrated in the church from quite early on, but it was in the early fourteenth century that it was definitively designated as a church festival on this day. To my knowledge, it is the only church festival celebrated in the Protestant churches that is about a doctrine rather than an event or person.
What Is the Trinity?
What Is the Trinity? That is the question, isn’t it? Simply put, the Trinity is the church’s way of reconciling what can be considered “problems” in the New Testament and the theology of the early church. Specifically:
- Christians confess that God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4), not changing the strict monotheism of their Jewish ancestors in the faith.
- There are multiple statements in the New Testament that indicate that Jesus is divine (see especially John 1; John 10:30).
- It is also clear that Jesus and God are separate.
- If Jesus’ death and resurrection truly have universe-changing consequences, then Jesus can’t be just another human being.
- Then there’s the Holy Spirit, but there has been less controversy about her.
So, out of this confusion, the organized church decided that Jesus was fully God and fully human (two natures of Christ), and that God is one AND the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God. Three persons, one Godhead. Also, “person” here does not mean “human.” What it does mean is a bit beyond what I can explain in this post. Here’s an older story I wrote which might be helpful in discussing this with kids.
Necessary for Faith?
Confused? That’s probably because you are thinking about this. It’s easy to confess: “God is one God in three persons.” Trying to really understand what that means is a lot harder. It is really easy to fall off the narrow beam of what is considered orthodoxy (correct belief) by mainstream Christianity. Check out “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies” video on YouTube for a humorous way to look at it.
So, this teaching is confusing, but is it necessary for faith? It depends on what you mean by “faith” and who you are speaking with. If you are within the primary Christian denominations and trying to learn or teach theology, it’s considered important, critical even, to affirm the Trinity and the two natures of Christ (which are hard to separate). If you are speaking about faith as a relationship of trust with God, no, you don’t need to understand it. Our relationship with God does not depend on which doctrines we know, understand, and accept. If it did, then that’s leaning toward gnosticism, another early heresy (wrong teaching) of the church. (Someday, we can perhaps play “fun with church heresies.” It’s a great game).
Mystery and Grace
This all boils down to how “knowable” God is. As humans, we like to understand things. And it’s important that we understand the world as best we can in our physical and spiritual lives. However, God is infinitely beyond what our tiny, finite brains can comprehend. There is indeed a type of theology/teaching that wants to limit our statements about God to what God is not (it’s called apophatic theology) since any statement about what God is will necessarily be incomplete. However you view it, God cannot be fully understood. God is a mystery and not one that we can solve. Thankfully, our relationship with God is not based on what we understand, agree to, say, or do. This relationship is based solely on God’s grace: unconditional, undeserved, unending love. Thanks be to God!
In the peace of the risen Christ,
Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
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The Trinity and Gender
A side note on this topic is the relationship between God, gender, and language. It’s a topic that deserves a lot more discussion than this, but simply put, God is infinitely beyond human understanding, including our understanding of sex and gender. Therefore, any names or titles we use for God are metaphorical, a mere shadow of the truth of God’s identity. This includes the common references of God as a father, king, etc. God is not male or female but is both, neither, and beyond these categories. Reducing God to one image or human gender is putting human limits on our infinite God.
Titles, metaphors, and gendered pronouns are natural and useful, we just should not believe that they totally encompass who God is. It is totally fair to use masculine images and pronouns for God, but it is also fair to use other, non-masculine images and pronouns. It is the reality that the masculine images and view of God are harmful to some. Therefore, we avoid masculine pronouns and many masculine titles for God here at Spirit & Truth Publishing. [I also think that people should adopt the pronouns they/them for God, both because it is an accepted non-gendered singular pronoun and because God is singular and plural (Tri-unity) as is they/them. But, we don’t do that in our products because it’s quite novel.]
Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit
This leads us back to the Trinity. The traditional formula is “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
- “Father” is a limited masculine metaphor for the first person of the Trinity.
- “Son” is defensible as we presume that Jesus was male, though as the second person of the Trinity pre-existed the incarnation, it is presumptuous to state unequivocally that this person is necessarily limited to human masculinity.
- “Holy Spirit” is a non-gendered person whose grammatical gender in Hebrew is feminine and in Greek neuter. Use of masculine pronouns here is entirely an interpretive decision.
However, the fact is that these names for the persons of the Trinity are specifically relational names. The common gender-neutral formula of Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer falls into the trinitarian heresy of modalism since each person is involved in creation, redemption, and sustenance. The closest I can come is Parent, Child, and Holy Spirit (or Parent, Child, and Holy Breath if you want to be completely different). It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, so we’ll see if it catches on.
Image: Alek Rapoport. Trinity in Dark Tones (Genesis 18), 1994. CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons