The Trinity – so what?
Simultaneously one of the best and worst questions that students in class ask is “but why?” Sometimes it can feel like you’re dealing with a troublesome tot “Why? Why? Why?” but it is a question that keeps returning me to think practically. I like ideas and I like to understand things and part of what I do is try to share some of those thoughts…but every now and again the “so what” question brings me back down to earth. It can be straightforward enough in the classroom to discuss such things like the co-equality of the Trinity, but as soon as someone asks “so what” then the real thinking must begin!
At the turn of the year I was given the chance to speak at a church once a month over the course of three months and it seemed a perfect opportunity to take some of the ideas that we had been discussing in the Trinity and Community class last autumn and adapt them for sharing in a church context. Specifically I had in mind to answer the question – how does the Triune nature of God’s being impact our daily Christian lives? And in many ways, this starting point was key to the shape of what followed. Often we are told lots about what God has done / is doing – “Jesus died for us”; “God loves us”; “God has forgiven me” – but we don’t often speak in terms of who God is. The same can be said of humans – we may describe what someone does, but this is not the same as who they are. You might describe me as a lecturer or that I play football, but this is different to knowing who I am as a person, my character and, to some extent, my nature as a finite creature. The latter is a deeper, albeit more complex, way to know me: you really need to know someone well and over a period of time to discern their nature and character. And so my implicit challenge in the question I wanted to answer was to say, how well do we really know God?
God, the Father
The starting point to understand the Father, as a person of the Trinity, is to avoid thinking “father” in biological and human terms. He is not biologically speaking, as in procreation, the father of the universe, or the father of the Son. Rather, the nomenclature of Father / Son shows something more of a logical relationship rather than biological (though different to Aquinas’ use of the term!) A father is only a father by virtue of the birth of an offspring; likewise an offspring only exists if there is parent. The two “states” come into being simultaneously, co-exist at one and the same moment, and always exist together – and it is in this way that we understand the Father in the Trinity. The Father and Son co-exist in all eternity and have always existed together from eternity to eternity, neither one preceding the other. The recognition that our human definitions are often inadequate for describing the Father means we can acknowledge that God is beyond the limitations of humanity. God is a divine being, not human or created, but eternal, infinite, and uncreated. This gives us a mandate for two important practices in the Christian faith –worship and respect for creation.
In recognising the Father as infinite and eternal we recognise God as one truly worthy of worship – not just a really good human, nor the best of creation, but a completely different being – the one and only divine being who goes far beyond our human nature. In this way, God alone is worthy of our worship. Our worship starts, not from what God has done, but from who God is in his divine being.
Secondly, in recognising the Father as divine and uncreated, we can recognise God as Creator. As creatures of the created order, we can only create from pre-existent material, shaping and forming from the already present. Yes we can “grow”, we “make” new humans, and we “create” new technologies – but these still require some pre-existent source material. If creatures can only create from the pre-existent, then it makes sense that only an uncreated, eternal being, with no beginning and no end, could create from nothing (creation ex nihilo). All of creation, therefore, flows from the Father and, furthermore, it is his desire for all of creation return to Him. When we look around and see that the entire world and all of our fellow humans are creations of the Father and His will is that all return to Him, there is no other option but to respect all of creation, including all of humanity.
God, the Son
Embodied-ness is an interesting concept – often we can be unconsciously dualistic in separating the body from some other idea of consciousness, spirit, or soul. In some way, we think of ourselves as our present physicality and then some other component which gives us our “person-ality.” However, I think this underplays the role that our physical presence in any given context has on shaping the person we are. I am a product of the situation I have been raised in, the opportunities afforded me, the gender and ethnicity I have, and so on. If I had been raised by different people, in a different place, in a different time period, I would not only look different, but think differently, and likely have a different temperament. Who I am as a conscious, thinking, living person cannot be separated from the contexts and experiences that have shaped me.
We most readily recognise the second person of the Trinity, the Son, in His incarnation as Jesus Christ of Nazareth. The fullness of God’s divine nature embodied together with the fullness of the human nature. This embodied-ness of God’s being reveals to us the God’s nature; first revealing God’s character; and second in the way we understand our salvation.
Philippians 2 presents a picture of the Son descending to earth from heaven, becoming a servant, experiencing death, only to be raised back to the right hand of the Father. It is a classic Pauline text but the nuance it is read with is significant to understanding the incarnation. Rather than the Son becoming less divine, it is the self-emptying, servant-heartedness, sacrificial love displayed in incarnation that reveals this as the true character of the divine. Furthermore, it is through Christ’s sacrificial life that we are certain of His equality with the Father and therefore deserving of His position at the right-hand of the Father. It is not that Christ somehow earned it, but rather, by fully embodying the true nature of God, there can be no other place for Him but at the right-hand of the Father revealing their equality.
But it is not just in His death, resurrection, and ascension that we see the character of God embodied. Rather through Christ’s life on earth, in context, we see what the good news really is: what the self-emptying, servant-hearted, sacrificial love looks like. And it looks like the binding up of the broken-hearted, the healing of the sick, and the releasing of the captives. This, of course, is what happens when the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord comes upon you – but we’re not quite done with the Son yet! So if we too, are to be like Christ, then it will mean embodying the good news to all around us. The good news is not just the forgiveness of sins and an enduring soul into the afterlife, but it is that we embody the good news of a God whose love sprang to life in real human encounters. Salvation does not belong in another life or heavenly realm, but it begins now in the way we embody the gospel.
God, the Holy Spirit
For the most part we are quite happy to describe the Father and the Son as persons of the Trinity, but in the Holy Spirit we begin to struggle. I think the Holy Spirit suffers from a case of mistaken identity on two accounts. First, because it is difficult to grasp the Holy Spirit we end up prone to misinterpretations, objective reasoning, and abuses of power, so instead we look to other, more tangible, sources for guiding. It is all too easy to have a trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Book rather than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Similarly it is all too common to accept the ideas of influential leaders in lieu of discerning the Holy Spirit.
In saying this, I tread a fine line – it is neither that the Bible is irrelevant, nor that good leaders are bad, but rather it is correctly identifying the source of enrichment / focus of our worship (two sides of the same coin). Both good leaders and the Bible are not the authority themselves; rather they point us to God, who, in the person of the Holy Spirit, is present on earth with us. Rather than replacing the Holy Spirit with something else because it seems easier to follow, we should recognise the Holy Spirit as the very presence of God on earth. In many ways, a simple thought; in other ways, a mind-blowing realisation.
The second case of mistaken identity comes through asking what we think the Holy Spirit is? And in that question lies the error. We talk of the Spirit as a what, or a cause of action, rather than a who. In Star Wars there is the idea of the Force – “May the Force be with you” (“and also with you” in some ecclesial traditions!) The Force enables the Jedi, those filled with the force, to act in ways beyond their normal abilities. And in some ways I think the Holy Spirit is caricatured as something similar – a force within us that helps us do supernatural things. But the Spirit is not an impersonal force, and the Holy Spirit does not have a dark side! Not only is the Holy Spirit the very presence of God in the world, the Holy Spirit is also the very presence of God in us. The Holy Spirit is the personal agent through whom we have the guarantee of a relationship with God (think John 14). Our relationship, in a trinitarian formula, is that we come, in the Holy Spirit and through the reconciliation of Christ, the Son, to the Father. The presence of the Holy Spirit in us and in the world draws us into the life of the Father. As all creation flowed from the Father, it is returned to the Father in the Spirit.
Of course, it would seem remiss perhaps to talk of the Holy Spirit and not touch briefly upon the gifts of the Spirit. And here I think there is less a case of mistaken identity and more a case of mistaken purpose. Without negating the value of spiritual gifts, it appears to me that the role of the Spirit, present within us, is to recognise its presence in other fellow Christ-followers. Wherever the gifts of the Spirit are mentioned, there is a corresponding admonishment to build the body of Christ (think 1st Cor. 12/13). The Spirit and the community of God’s people go hand-in-hand. With the presence of God within us, we are able to recognise the same Spirit in others, with the Spirit connecting us, one to the other. Miroslav Volf calls this role of the Spirit as presence and counterpart in each Christ-follower i.e. the Spirit is present in all and recognises itself as a counterpart in all others. The Holy Spirit is what constitutes the body of Christ, of which we can all be members.
Father, Son, and Spirit…and us.
In some way this brings us a full circle. We began by recognising that God is the only being worthy of our worship and ended with God’s role in constituting the worshipping community. In between the nature of God’s being has helped to fill out a more complete picture of the Christian life:
- God’s nature guides us in the inception of worship
- God’s nature gives a reason to respect all creation
- God’s nature calls us to recognise our role in embodying the good news through love, justice, and mercy
- God’s nature informs our understanding of salvation
- God’s nature assures us of God’s presence in the world
- God’s nature assures us of God’s presence in us
- God’s nature inaugurates and sustains the worshipping community.
This only just scratches the surface of God’s Triune being and what flows from it – there is much more that could (and has been) written. However, I hope it has challenged you, maybe even inspired you, but moreover, I hope it helps you to be drawn evermore into the life and love of the divine.
These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using firstname.lastname@example.org or through social media if that’s where you see it!