It’s not unusual, as I talk to other Christians (especially the more consciously Protestant sort) to find that they’re vaguely aware of the doctrine of the Trinity, but they feel they don’t understand it, and even that they distrust it as not being Biblical. And it’s true that the word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible, although there are places where Trinitarian formulae are used (Matthew 28:19 is a good example). But it took the first few centuries of the Church’s existence, and much reflection on Scripture and the experience of believers, and many arguments, to sort out what the Church felt it could safely say about God, after Christ.
And I want to emphasise that lived experience of believers as important. For example, it was because Christians worshipped the Spirit, sang songs in praise of the Spirit, and prayed to the Spirit; because they recognised the Spirit as present and active in the Church’s life, that they found they needed a way of speaking which recognised the Spirit as God, as much as the Father and the Son.
It raises the question in my mind; if we don’t use the language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit to describe our experience of God, have we explored the potential of our faith as fully as possible?
Let me put that another way. We talk about God as Trinity. And I think it’s an important and valid question then to ask, “So What?”
I’d like to begin to scope out an answer to that question.
What is it that leads us to talk about God as Father? Isn’t it that we celebrate the dignity, the value, and the wonder of each human being around us – and remember that these human beings are made in the image of God? Isn’t it that we look at the heavens and the earth – everything from the vastness of space to the intricacy of a single living cell – and worship in awe at the wisdom which could conceive of this, and the might that could bring it into existence? Isn’t it also that we are aware that in what we know, we are just playing in the waves on the edges of a vast ocean, and that we can only guess at the depth and breadth of the mysteries which are just too vast for us to grasp?
I suggest that every time we are mindful of these things, they bring us back to recognising God as Father, and to a profound reverence and awe in our worship and our lives.
And then, what is it to talk about God the Son? The defining story of Christianity – of the God who emptied himself; who, as Philippians says, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but laid it aside, became human, and became our servant, even to the point of death – shows us an aspect of the life of God which is distinct from that of the Father.
There is, I think, something important to pause and consider here. And that is that in no way can we consider Father and Son to be divided or opposites. Sometimes the way we think and talk about what Jesus did for us, in dying for us and opening a way back into intimate relationship with God, it sounds as if the Father and the Son were pulling something of a cosmic good cop-bad cop routine. The Father is presented as the “bad cop” who holds judgement and damnation over our heads, and the Son as the “good cop” who steps in, placates the “bad cop” and makes everything alright for us, if only we comply with what is being asked of us.
I have to tell you, that that kind of thinking about God doesn’t wash. There is no difference in attitude towards us between Father and Son. Both the Father and the Son love us; both the Father and the Son care for us, and the Father and the Son collaborated together in the costly work of our redemption. In this, as much as in creation or any other work of God, they are united in purpose and action.
Yet we still need to ask, what is it for us to recognise the work of the Spirit in our lives, in our Church, and to be able to talk about that? Some of us will have experienced, or known others who have experienced, “charismatic” expressions of the Spirit in the life of believers. That is all well and good and to the glory of God. But even for those of us who haven’t, the evidence of the Spirit’s work amongst us is still there to be seen. As long as we can recognise in ourselves (or, more often it is easier to see it in others) the growth of a person, becoming more loving, patient, kind, generous and gentle; more wise, faithful, joyful, and peaceful; and more self-controlled – we can recognise the work of the Spirit in bringing about good fruit in our lives.
All of this is as much to say, the idea of the Trinity isn’t an intellectual puzzle or an abstract mathematical formula. It isn’t something handed down to us from theologians in ivory towers with scarily intelligent minds. It is an idea which comes out of the lived experience of every Christian believer. It is the Church’s communal shout of praise for a God whose richness of being overflows, in ways which stretch our language almost to breaking point, but only so as to make room for us to grow in love and worship Him more fully. It is as we realise the truth of God’s being, for us, that we find ourselves growing more fully into His likeness; that we find God’s kingdom growing and transforming the world in which we live; and that we find our language unable to contain the full meaning of truth which ultimately we have to experience to know.
I came across a line which I very much liked from Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, in which he said that in speaking of the Trinity, we try to find, not the most exact but the least silly things to say; that we try to find language which will share the exhilaration of being drawn into the life of God. It’s just possible that I’m a lot sillier than Rowan Williams. But I hope that if I can say anything which is of use at all about the Trinity, it will be something which speaks of that exhilaration. Of the abundance of God the Father, poured out in creation; of the generosity and selflessness of God the Son, shown in his life, death and resurrection; of the power and energy of the Spirit, renewing us, pushing at the world as God’s kingdom comes and grows in our midst. Who wouldn’t be exhilarated? Who wouldn’t be encouraged to glimpse something of this?
In that sense, having a formal doctrine and a feast day to celebrate the Trinity starts to make more sense. It’s not a day to be put off by the fact that we still see God only through a mirror, dimly. Rather it’s a day to celebrate and give thanks for the understanding we do have; not just in words and teaching, but in our concrete lived experience, and that of the whole Church through all of time.
I haven’t, however, quite finished with the question, “So What?”
So far I have been talking as if the inner life of God, the reality of the three persons working together in love, is something which doesn’t have implications for our own lives. But all of us who are Christians have made that commitment because something about that God has been deeply attractive to us. Even as we work to understand our awesome God, that awesomeness lays hold of us and makes claims on us. The deeply creative, loving, overflowing life of God comes to live within us; to show itself within us, and to work through us to take hold of others around us.
And this is also part of the meaning of our baptism in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is, just as surely, the place where we find our understanding that the whole Church, the whole body of Christ, is involved and caught up in the mission of God to the world. Whatever gifts we have each been given, whatever our abilities and personalities, whatever niche each of us has within this community, we are called to work and to function together. Our life as a community should mirror something of the inner life of God; a life in which hierarchy and ego are not at issue; a life in which each is willing to be involved in work that is costly; a life which is not closed off and turned inward, but looking outward in overflowing abundant generosity, love and joy. God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and we can hardly remain unchanged after that experience.
That is my answer to the question “So What?” That is the least silly glimpse into the meaning of Trinity which I can offer you today. That is the hope in which I walk and live every day; that in this lived experience, this and every Christian community can press deeper into the mystery of the Trinity. May our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let it be so.