Trinity Sunday: The Beauty of the Triune God

trinity-stained-glass-window

This post was meant to be published on June 11, which was Trinity Sunday. Apologies for the late post. 

After Pentecost, the Church Calendar enters a period of “Ordinary Time,” which will stretch out until the beginning of Advent on December 3.

In Ordinary Time, we do not order our hearts by living into Jesus’ story, as we do in the six months from the beginning of Advent to the end of Easter at Pentecost. We do not have the longing of Advent, the joy of Christmas, the contemplation of Epiphany, the preparation of Lent, the agony of Good Friday, the triumph of Resurrection, or the excitement of Pentecost to guide us as we seek to follow Jesus in our worship and prayer.

Instead, for the six months of Ordinary Time, we try to live into the story of the Church after Pentecost, the story of us now–where we confess that Jesus is Ascended and that the Spirit dwells in our hearts and knits us together in our local congregations, all while we wrestle with the nagging doubt: Is this going anywhere, or are we just marking time, Sunday after Sunday, to no real end?

The question of Ordinary Time is a question I want to leave for the next few Sundays of June, and then I would like to jump into a study that would take us through the Book of Acts from the start of July through to the end of November.

But before we have to wrestle with the meaning of Ordinary Time, we must acknowledge that the first Sunday of Ordinary Time, June 11, is also Trinity Sunday.

Accordingly, on this Sunday we focus on the mystery of God’s being as Three-in-One. This Sunday is unique on the Church Calendar as it is the only Sunday focused on a doctrine of the church, and not on an event.

The word “Trinity” is nowhere used in Scripture. And yet, to not acknowledge the truth of the Trinity is to place yourself outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.

Paul charges Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:14 to “guard the deposit of faith” that was entrusted to him, with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. For the first three hundred years of the Church, before Scripture had been canonized by the church, many challenges arose against the deposit of faith.

In sum, most of these challenges were attempts to make sense of who Christ is in relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit. There was consensus among the different factions that Christ and the Holy Spirit were divine in some sense. But in keeping with the Greek Platonic thought of the day, they were thought to be lesser emanations springing forth from the pure, uncaused Godhead, the Father.

Under this interpretation, Christ would be the highest of all creatures, supreme within the universe–but still a creature nonetheless. The Holy Spirit is either another, spiritual emanation from the Father, or a Spirit of Christ that flows forth subordinate to Him.

This interpretation was rejected fulsomely at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. This council published a Creed to guard the deposit of faith and clarify the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This Creed was further expanded at the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 AD, and reads as follows:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made:

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man;

And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried;

And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;

And ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father;

And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets;

And we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.

We look for the Resurrection of the dead,

And the Life of the age to come. Amen.

Though this Creed has been slightly altered in various Christian traditions–often prompting schism and division when done–today, millions of Oriental and Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant believers confess the Nicene Creed every Sunday. In doing so, we guard the deposit of the Christian faith and hold to the worship of the Triune God, over and against our human attempts to simplify, and thereby unwittingly distort, His Divine Life.

Accordingly we confess that the Father is the Creator, Maker and Sustainer of all things visible and invisible. I like how it sounds in Latin: visibilium omnium et invisibilium. It makes me think of the omnium, the entire universe, both visible and invisible–there is an entire dimension of reality we humans cannot perceive, but over which God is just as sovereign!

We also confess that Jesus is the uncreated Son of the Father: “begotten, not made.” He is very God of very God, eternally generated but in no sense subordinate in being or oneness with the Father.

And we finally confess that the Holy Spirit, who inspired Scripture as he “spoke by the Prophets,” who imparts life and every good gift from the Father to Creation for the sake of the Son, and who is equal in being and oneness with the Father and the Son.

And so, as summarized by many teachers of Christianity, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. The Father is not the Son nor is He the Holy Spirit, the Son is not the Father nor is He the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father nor is He the Son. And God is one. This is what Christians believe.

It is probably unhelpful to attempt to peer into the Trinity past this confession with further metaphors, for every metaphor risks distorting the simultaneous Threeness and Oneness of God that we confess as Christians.

However, I can’t help myself: At the risk of being heretical, let me venture forth a tentative a proposal for understanding the Trinity that has helped me a great deal. I do not think it is original–I am sure that I have read it or heard it somewhere, but I cannot find out where.

As I talk about in another post, God is “being itself,” the pure act of being that both transcends being and imparts the gift of being to all that exists. One way to understand “the act of being” may be to compare it to another logically distinct idea like speaking.

We can separate out the “act of speaking” into 1) the thought of the word that will be spoken, 2) the breath (or the physical act of speaking) that brings the word forth into sound, and 3) the word that is spoken, which was generated by the thought and accomplished by the breath. These are all elements of the “act” of speaking.

Perhaps we can think of God in a similar fashion. There is the Father, who is eternally “thinking” of the Son and activating the Spirit to bring the Son forth. There is the Spirit, who is eternally activated by the Father and brings the Son forth in power. And there is the Son, who is eternally the object of the Father’s “eternal thought” and brought into fullness by the Spirit. These three Persons who are one God are together the “act” of being.

I’m almost sure this is wrong in some sense, so please don’t make my metaphor ultimate for understanding the Trinity. The closest we can get to understanding the Trinity is the Creed which helps us understand Scripture.

But I do think that this metaphor, however flawed and limited, does help us make sense of Christian life, which is caught up in the Triune God. The Father created with a purpose, but His purpose is the Son, and the Spirit is the means by which He accomplishes the Son. In the same way, we can only be like Jesus through the work of the Spirit, and becoming like Jesus is the Father’s goal for us as the Church. I believe this is a beautiful picture of God’s aims for us.

As we embark on the next six months of Ordinary Time, it is fitting that we begin by focusing on the Trinity. Because it is by being caught up in the Trinitarian life of God that the Church finds its grounds, meaning, and purpose.

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