It’s Trinity Sunday, and as we are the Church of the Holy Trinity (Dulwich Hill) that makes today something like a patronal festival. It’s the closest we get, at any rate!
I appreciate that it’s an odd sort of patronal festival, as a patron saint is generally a person upon we can look to as a role model, and the Trinity is not a person at all (in any normal sense), but a concept, and a notoriously difficult concept, and it’s hard to know how you’re supposed to model yourself on a concept, particularly this one!
Even so, those who’ve known me for any length of time know that I’m a big fan of the doctrine of the Trinity, and indeed that, by extension, I have a deep love of the Athanasian Creed, that is the church’s most detailed exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity – a love that is not shared by everybody in our congregation.
“And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.”
And so the creed goes on – and on and on, some people would say – spelling out the doctrine of the Trinity in great detail, and indeed, many of us do prefer Dorothy Sayer’s abbreviated version of the creed: “the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible!”
At the heart of all this Byzantine complexity though is a straightforward statement of faith – that the historic person, Jesus of Nazareth, is God – and while that’s simple to say, it’s not easy to understand, as we normally define God as being something that we are not, and hence the church has had to develop some special (and frustratingly complicated) formulas to try to bring these two opposing concepts together.
When I’ve preached on the doctrine of the Trinity in the past, I’ve focused on the doctrine as a philosophical problem, and I guess that’s been largely because of my background. Philosophy was my first love. It was the focus of my first university degree, and sometimes I still daydream about going back to University and doing a doctorate in philosophy – perhaps even one focused on the doctrine of the Trinity!
What I find fascinating about the doctrine of the Trinity from a philosophical point of view, is not simply that it presents an interesting challenge to traditional logic, but more so that those who formulated the doctrine recognised that in order to speak truly about God, they needed to move beyond the language of traditional logic. They broke away from the old formulas for the sake of truth, as they perceived it!
As I say, I have a background in philosophy, and perhaps I have a future in it. Even so, over the last few years, almost all the discussions I’ve had about the doctrine of the Trinity (and there have been a number of them) have taken place in an entirely different context. They’ve been a part of my dialogue with Muslim people!
As I say, the doctrine of the Trinity holds a special place in the history of human thought in the way it attempts to bring together concepts that seem to be logically incompatible. It also holds a special place in the history of inter-faith relationships, as it’s the doctrine of the Trinity that is the main bone of contention between Christians, on the one hand, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Muslims on the other!
When I was in Iran last year I had a very heartfelt discussion with my dear friend, Sheikh Mansour, and I asked him how he thought we might build better relations between the Christian and Muslim communities. He said (though I’m not quoting him) that if we could just get over the doctrine of the Trinity, that would help a lot!
Mansour also shared a story with me about some Christian friends of his who had pleaded with him to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to them. They were Christians, and Mansour said he wasn’t suggesting to them that they should change their faith. Even so, he just had no way of explaining to them this doctrine when he (like Dorothy Sayers) found the whole thing incomprehensible!
I had, of course, referred the Sheikh to my aforementioned sermons on the Trinity, including my 2014 offering – “Does God really have a penis?” – which he found unsatisfactory (predictably perhaps), and it did occur to me that this sermon and its predecessors really only made sense to people who took Jesus as the starting point of their religious thinking, as I do (and as Athanasius and those who developed the doctrine of the Trinity did). It occurred to me then that an equally good case could be made for the doctrine of the Trinity by looking at it from a Biblical-narrative perspective, rather than from a philosophical one.
If that sounds confusing, my point is that there’s more than one way to the doctrine of the Trinity. The belief that Jesus is God is not just a conclusion that ancient theologians reached after much philosophical wrangling. It is also the inevitable climax of the great Biblical drama when seen as a connected story from the books of Genesis to Revelation.
I thought that might be a better way to present the case for the Trinity to my friend, Sheikh Mansour, since Muslims, as well as Christians, take both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament very seriously. And so, for the bulk of my remaining time today, I want to share with you the letter I wrote to Sheikh Mansour in January of this year, making the case for the doctrine of the Trinity.
In doing so, I am aware of an obvious problem – namely, that the letter was designed to be read rather than listened to, and I appreciate that the written word and the spoken word are two very distinct forms of communication. Indeed, it may require of you a special level of concentration to stay with me while I read this to you. Humorous anecdotes and personal yarns, designed to hold your attention, are conspicuously absent in what follows. Even so …
My dear brother [Mansour],
As mentioned in my previous email, I want to try to take up again the conversation we were having when we last spoke, as I feel it was left very much unresolved.
You questioned me very sincerely about the apparently irrational Christian belief in the Trinity and the identification of Jesus with God. I was conscious when I left you that my response (which was along the lines of ‘perhaps God is more mysterious than we think’) was not remotely satisfying to you.
I have reflected on this matter much since, and I thought I might be able to come back to you now with a more helpful response. I offer you this response, not to convince you of the Christian position, but to help you see how sensible people can arrive at this conclusion despite the obvious conceptual difficulties.
The starting point, I believe, in appreciating the different understandings of God embodied in Islam and Christianity is to recognise that the Qur’an and the Christian Bible are very different sorts of books. They don’t simply teach different things about God. They are different sorts of literature.
What I mean is that Qur’an, as I read it, is fundamentally a book of truths and laws, whereas the Christian Bible is basically a story. By this I don’t mean only that the Christian Bible contains stories (as the Qur’an does too). I mean that the Bible as a whole can be read as a single narrative – one that starts in a garden and ends in a city. I do not think you would say the same about the Qur’an.
To my understanding, conveying truth through narrative was the norm for the ancient Semitic people (as in many other traditional cultures). Presenting truth by the way of abstract propositions is more the legacy of Greek philosophy.
Muhammed (peace be upon him) lived in the 6th and 7th centuries of the Christian era – a period when the Greek philosophical framework dominated the intellectual world. Notably the great Councils of the church, such as Nicea and Constantinople, took place in this same intellectual climate. The struggle in these councils, I believe, was to try to fit the truth of the Christian Bible – conveyed in narrative form – into a Greek philosophical framework so that contemporary people could make sense of it. The doctrine of the Trinity was one result of this process.
In truth, turning the Biblical story into an abstract concept was never going to be a seamless process, and so the doctrine of the Trinity never sits very comfortably as a piece of logic. Even so, to my understanding, it was the best that we could come up with, and if it appears to fail in terms of its logic, it does so in order to remain true to the story from which it emerges.
I will not discuss the Trinity further here as a doctrine, but instead want to give you a summary of the story that lies behind it.
In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth … and it was all very good! (Genesis 1)
This is the starting point of the Biblical story where all of creation lives in harmony. In particular, God and humanity are seen as living together happily, with God depicted as walking through the Garden of Eden, enjoying the cool of the day, as He talks to Adam (Genesis 3:8). We might ask how this depiction of God is sensible if God is almighty and invisible, but this does not seem to be a problem to the story-teller. Of greater concern is the way the good relationship between God and humanity breaks down through the eating of the forbidden fruit, resulting in the familiar story of humanity’s expulsion from the garden.
The Eden tragedy is followed in Genesis chapters 1 to 11 by a series of further tragic stories, such as Noah and the flood, culminating in the chaos of the Tower of Babel. It seems at this point of the story that there is no hope for bringing God and humanity back together, but then there is a promise given to Abram in Genesis 12: I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you”.
This promise – normally referred to as the ‘covenant with Abraham’ – forms the beginning of a new plot line in the story. It introduces a new hope for humanity – that through Abraham and his descendants, all the families of the earth will be blessed. In other words, the hope is that through Abraham and his offspring, the tragic breakdown in relationship between God and humanity will be healed, and God and human beings will be brought back together again to live together in harmony once more! The rest of the Christian Bible – both Old and New Testaments – is the playing out of this plot line.
The promise to Abraham is in fact a three-fold promise:
- The promise of a great nation
- The promise of a land
- The promise that these people will be a blessing
We can see how the first part of the promise is already fulfilled by the time we reach the second book in the Bible – the Book of Exodus – where the descendants of Abraham (the ‘children of Israel’) are numerous indeed. They have no land though, being captives in Egypt, and are not by this stage doing anything to bring God and humanity back together.
The story of Exodus tells how the people are liberated from slavery and move towards their land. Notably though, the primary purpose of their liberation, according to the Book of Exodus, was so that God and humanity might live together again: “And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them.” (Exodus 19:46)
The exodus, of course, didn’t go as well as Moses had hoped, and we don’t see there any return to the natural and happy relationship humanity enjoyed with God in the Garden of Eden. We do see though see indications of God’s presence in a fire and a cloud (Exodus 13:21-22), and then most especially in the Tabernacle (see Exodus 40:34-38).
The Tabernacle was a tent that housed the ark of the covenant, containing the stone tablets upon which the ten commandments were written. Like the temple of Solomon that eventually succeeded it (1 Kings 8:4-14), it was the place where God was supposed to be especially present, but it was hardly the fulfillment of the original promise to Abraham. And so the people continued to wait for that promise to be fulfilled – for God to return in His fullness – a hope that the prophets promised would one day be fulfilled.
“I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.” (Leviticus 26:11-12)
“My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Ezekiel 37:27)
“Sing for joy and be glad, O daughter of Zion; for behold I am coming and I will dwell in your midst,” declares the LORD.” (Zechariah 2:10)
Sadly, as we progress through the Hebrew Bible, we don’t see these hopes approaching realisation. On the contrary, the behaviour of the people of Israel continues to degenerate to the point where the God removes His presence from the people altogether! Ezekiel spells this out in a lengthy vision (Ezekiel, chapters 9 to 11) where the Spirit of God ups and leaves the temple!
As the Hebrew Bible closes, there is apparently no presence of God any more in Israel, and the hopes of a restored relationship between God and humanity seem as distant as ever! This though is where the Christian New Testament begins. It claims that Jesus is the fulfillment of the ancient hope – that, in Jesus, God is returning to His people.
In the opening verses of the New Testament (Matthew chapter 1) we see a long (and seemingly tedious) list of Jesus’ ancestors. The point is to link Jesus back both to David and to Abraham. Jesus is being depicted as the promised offspring of Abraham who will bring God and humanity back together.
In Mark’s Gospel Jesus is introduced through John the Baptist:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” (Mark 1:1-3)
John the Baptist is depicted as the messenger who ‘prepares the way’ for the return of God to His people. He then designates Jesus as the one he was preparing the way for.
In John’s Gospel, the author comes straight to the point
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
The phrase translated here as ‘lived among us’ is literally, ‘tabernacled amongst us’. In other words, Jesus is seen as the presence of God returning!
Rather than spell out any further how the Gospel writers see Jesus as fulfilling the ancient hope for God’s return, let me skip to the very end of the New Testament, where we find the image of the tabernacle again.
“And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God!” Revelation 21:3
This is how the Bible concludes – with the ancient hope of a restored relationship between God and humanity being completely fulfilled. God is again dwelling with His people, and Jesus is at centre stage!
Now … it is within this broad story that the church developed its doctrine regarding the identity of Jesus. He wasn’t simply a messenger with a message. He was the fulfillment of the hope of God’s return to His people – a hope rooted in the ancient covenant with Abraham.
As I say, when we try to take this story and try to squeeze it into an abstract philosophical framework, we have problems. We end up arguing over the minutiae of particular texts and sayings and trying to balance them against each other. The original story is often lost in the process and the formulas that are generated can end up looking both arbitrary and irrational. Even so, the Christian faith should not (in my view) be founded on these abstract doctrines. Faith should be grounded in the great Biblical story that gives birth to these doctrines, and in the hope that this story gives us.
I hope you find this helpful, my dear brother.
And I hope you find this helpful too.
I don’t suggest for a moment that approaching the doctrine of the Trinity this way makes the whole thing less incomprehensible. It may though help us appreciate why our fathers and mothers in the faith decided to stick with the incomprehensible, rather than dumb things down to fit everything into a culturally acceptable philosophical framework that didn’t do justice to the great Biblical narrative.
I appreciate that the doctrine of the Trinity is a stumbling-block between Christians and Muslims, as it is between Christians and Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other communities who do not accept the conclusions of the early Christian councils. Personally though, I believe that the best way to build relations between the different faith communities isn’t to ask anybody to dilute their doctrines. We just need to learn to love one another, despite our dogmatic differences!
I believe that our fathers and mothers in the faith understood that the God who comes to us through the pages of the Bible is ultimately a mystery, and the doctrine of the Trinity was their attempt to preserve that mystery for us in a way that was true to the Scriptures. The God they testified to, who is both three in one and one in three, may not be intellectually comfortable, but is the one who we recognise in Scripture and in all of life, and who is worthy of our service and worship.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal … And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped.
sermon preached at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on June 11th, 2017