The Doctrine of the Trinity – not as incomprehensible as you might think!

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I’ve got a surprise this morning – my sermon on the doctrine of the Trinity.

I appreciate that this may not be the type of surprise you were really looking for. Nice surprises generally don’t come in sermon-shaped packages, let alone in packages shaped like the doctrine of the Trinity!  And it’s not Trinity Sunday, so what’s my excuse? Trinity Sunday was a good month ago!

In truth, I had my sermon on the doctrine of the Trinity ready for Trinity Sunday but had forgotten that we’d lined up a guest preacher that week! When he turned up he asked me, “You didn’t forget I was coming, did you?” and I replied “Of course not!” and I quietly took my sermon back home.

This week I took it out again, and I decided that it was best not to warn anybody what was coming! For indeed, I can’t think of any better way to help people feel the cold of winter and sense that need to cocoon themselves in the comforts of home rather that trudge their weary way to church, than an announcement that a discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity will take place at church this Sunday!

Doctrine is boring, and it’s confusing! ‘The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible!’– that was Dorothy Sayers’ summation of the doctrine of the Trinity (as presented in the Athanasian Creed) and I know Dorothy has some fans here!

The study of doctrine tends to be painful and, moreover, it is often divisive!  What have the great historical conflicts between Catholics and Protestants been over? Intricate matters of doctrine. And indeed, what is it that separates the religions of the world and has one group calling another group infidels or heretics? It’s not skin-colour or culture or politics (or, at least, it’s not supposed to be). Ostensibly, it’s doctrine!

I had a feisty conversation with a Muslim brother out the front of the Sydney Town Hall on Thursday night. He was saying to me “why do we have to talk about things we don’t agree upon? We have so much in common! Why don’t we just stick to talking about the many things we agree upon?

“But brother”, I said, “if we only talk about things we’re all agreed upon then we’re never going to learn anything new!” The problem, I suggested to him, was not that we argue too much about things that we don’t agree upon, but that we too often argue in a spirit of arrogance – talking but not listening, keen to communicate our truths but unwilling to really listen to what the other is saying!

So I want to talk today about the things that divide us – about truth and falsity, orthodoxy and heresy. I just don’t want to be arrogant about it!

I appreciate, of course, that a sermon is a one-way communication process where I talk and you listen. Even so, if you disagree with me (and I’m sure many of you will) you can talk to me about it afterwards, and I promise that I will listen. Of course, if you’re watching this on my blog or on YouTube, I can’t hear you (though I will try to reply to questions or comments left on the blog).

So we’re going to talk about what God is like, and we’re going to start that discussion by going back to the year 313, to the town of Baucalis in Alexandria, where a man named Arius had just been appointed rector of the local church.

Arius was a tall and distinguished looking man, with a charismatic flair that apparently had the women of his parish doting on him and the men impressed by “his aura of intellectual superiority” (so Epiphanius).

Arius taught his flock that the Lord Jesus was like God – indeed that Jesus was ‘homoiousios’ (to use the Greek word), meaning that He was made of a similar substance to God the Father. One day though one of his parishioners made a complaint about him to the bishop (whether out of genuine conviction or out of jealousy for Arius’ popularity with the girls we don’t know) saying that Arius was denying the faith!  Arius was called to account by his bishop, Alexander, who put the case into the hands of his capable Archdeacon, Athanasius.

Athanasius agreed with the parishioner – that Arius was indeed denying the Christian faith.  According to the Scriptures, Athanasius said, Jesus not just godlike, but was God.  Jesus was not simply ‘homoiousios’ (of similar substance to God our Father), but was ‘homoousios’ (made of the same substance as God the Father).  And so began a debate that raged for almost a century, became the basis of three world-wide Church Councils, enduring the reigns of three emperors, and which wasn’t completely settled until well after the death of Arius, and (I think) after the death of Athanasius as well.

Homoousios or homoiousios, of like substance with the father or of the same substance of the father, Jesus is very similar to God or Jesus is God – what’s the difference?  Most church-goers at the time probably didn’t see a lot of difference between the two positions, and most likely most church-goers today wouldn’t see a whole lot of difference either!

But the fact that differences don’t appear to be great to the untrained eye doesn’t mean that they are not significant!

I am one who has no expertise whatsoever in matters electrical.  To me the wiring of a house, correctly wired-up, looks much the same as the wiring of an incorrectly wired house. So who cares what the wiring looks like?  Well, when you find yourself sitting in the dark one night because none of your lights are working, you start to care!

Are the differences between Arius and Athanasius, over whether Jesus was of like substance to the Father or of the same substance as the Father, really that significant?  I think they are!

For one thing, Arius’ position – that Jesus was like the Father – made sense, logically.  A human being surely could not be God, without God ceasing to be God.  Therefore it makes sense to see it all in terms of a hierarchy.  God the Father is at the top of the ladder, Jesus the Son is on the next rung down, and perhaps we place the Holy Spirit on the rung below that.
The beauty of this hierarchy too is that it can help us to make sense of other religions. God, Jesus and the Spirit occupy the top three rungs of the ladder, we might say, but there’s plenty of room for Buddha and Mohammed and any number of other godlike figures to take their proper places on the lower rungs.  It all makes a great deal of sense.

Athanasius’ position, on the other hand, doesn’t make much sense at all.  The very concept that Jesus is God, while the Father to whom He prayed is also God, and that while they are both clearly distinct and separate personae, they are both the one God, just doesn’t work as a coherent concept.

Holding the two doctrines side by side, it must be hard to envisage how Athanasius’ concept of God ever won the day.  Even so, I would suggest to you, while it was Arius’ concept of God that made sense, it was Athanasius’ concept of God that was more true to the Bible.

Indeed, I would suggest to you that what Athanasius did, in all his fumbling paradoxical language, was try to preserve for us something of the mystery of God as revealed in the Scriptures, whereas Arius simply followed the logic of his culture.

Someone says ‘I find it hard to believe that Jesus could be God’, and our natural response to that might be to try and tell them something more about Jesus.  I have a feeling though that Athanasius would have probably turned that challenge on its head!  ‘What sort of God do you envisage, such that you do not think Jesus could be this God?’

You see, when someone says ‘I find it hard to believe that Jesus could be God’, they obviously already have some predefined concept of God, such that they find it hard to approximate Jesus to that concept.

If you were an educated Roman citizen of the fourth century, whose mind had been shaped by the thinking of the great Greek philosophers, you probably grew up with a rather coherent concept of God as a distant ‘force’ that had been there from the beginning of time, and which embodied eternal logic.  You probably believed that your disembodied spirit was moving towards this God, and if this were your concept of God it would be rather hard to envisage how the man Jesus could be that God, for Jesus was certainly a man.

Or what if you started out with a different concept of God?  What if your concept of God was the Hindu god Shiva – god as the eternally active cosmic birther and destroyer, the great god of the dance?  You’d probably find it equally hard to see how Jesus could be that God.

Or what if you started out with an Islamic concept of God – a deity who is so completely holy and transcendent that He is entirely beyond this world? You’d probably find it impossible to equate Jesus with this god too. But, says Athanasius, what if, instead of starting with whatever concept of God our culture has given us, we turn the whole process upside-down?  What if, instead of starting with our concept of God and trying to build Jesus into it, we start with Jesus, and try to shape our understanding of God around Him.

What if we try to be honest enough to say ‘we probably know nothing about God, except what we see and hear in Jesus’?  What if we stop pretending that we were born with some innate knowledge of who or what God is, and take as our starting point ‘Jesus is God!’

The problem for all of us, I think, is that we all begin with a working concept of God – passed on to us by our culture, long before we develop a genuine understanding of Jesus.

In white-Australian culture we generally inherit a version of the Greek philosophical concept of God as a distant spiritual being who inhabits another dimension of time and space.  Either that or a combination of that with that very modern concept of God as a sort of therapeutic force that warms and inspires, but never really interacts too aggressively with us.

God in popular culture is someone or something that cares and strengthens but doesn’t ever get too involved – certainly not to the point of violating a person’s autonomy, and frankly, he isn’t really able to do very much anyway. As one commentator said, our culture’s current concept of God is sort of like that guy who, when your car is broken down at the side of the road, drives by and says ‘hey, bad luck buddy, I hope things improve’ and then drives on – empathetic but ultimately ineffective, sincere but remote. If that’s your concept of God – omniscient, omnipresent, and distant – and somebody asks you ‘could Jesus be that God?’… it just doesn’t make sense.

But what if we turn it on its head? What if, instead of starting with a culturally defined concept of God, we start with Jesus?  What if we say, ‘I don’t understand much about God, but what I do know is that He has two arms and two legs and that he lived in Palestine for a while, and that He liked parties, and that he touched lepers, and that he gave healing and dignity to people who had never known it before, and that He suffered on the cross but on the third day rose again from the dead!’

It’s starting to sound a bit like the creed, isn’t it, and not by coincidence, for that, I suggest to you, is the essence of ‘Trinitarian thinking’. The doctrine of the Trinity was a historic decision of the church that we must begin our thinking about God with the person of Jesus, because we are never going to know more about God than what we see in Jesus. It means being humble, being Biblical, Christ-centred, and counter-cultural!

This is the Christian faith, and it’s not (as I see it) simply a different set of beliefs about God. It’s a different way of thinking about God. It’s thinking about God, starting at the human end of God, and it’s recognising that whoever or whatever God is – omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent or … whatever, God is first of all our brother in the flesh, Jesus, who was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, but on the third day rose again from the dead as our leader, our brother, our inspiration and our friend.

This is the faith of the Church. This is the doctrine of the Trinity. We believe in one God – Father, Son, and Spirit – a unity in Trinity and Trinity in unity that is to be worshiped.  Amen.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on July 7, 2013.

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Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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1 Response to The Doctrine of the Trinity – not as incomprehensible as you might think!

  1. Arlene Adamo says:

    Why I think you make a lot of sense, Father Dave:

    Jesus wasn’t the consistent throughout the Gospels. He progressed. First off, most of His life is undocumented which means it likely wasn’t very exciting. It all begins when He shows up to be baptized by John, and John says, “Hey, this Guy is important,” and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus. From there, He starts out reading minds and magically knowing things like Nathanael under the fig tree. Then comes the water into wine miracle, catching more attention. He continues preaching and upsetting people, and then He starts with the healing which gets everybody really excited. Then He fed people with the loaves and fishes, and people are getting more excited. Everytime the Pharisees come around, He makes fools of them, (which they were), and everybody is saying, “Who is this Guy?” And He’s telling them stranger and stranger things that confuse some and make others really angry. Then He starts talking about God as The Father to try and explain to them who He is. Then He says, “before Abraham was born, I am!” which made a bunch of them plan to kill Him, but He magically gets away. So He keeps doin’ what He’s doin’ and everybody’s saying, “Holy Smoke!” Then He does something really crazy and raises Lazarus, (who’s been dead four days), from the dead. Jesus is now undeniably defying death. There’s also one point, (I forget where it is but think it’s in John), where one of the disciples becomes concerned because Jesus no longer seems to be eating. Finally, He allows the authorities to arrest Him and put Him to death. When the soldier puts a sword in His side, everyone is amazed to see water pour out. So then He’s resurrected, ultimately defying His own death. When Mary Magdalene sees Him, she doesn’t recognize Him, and whatever you may think about their relationship, one cannot deny that she would have recognized Him as easily as His own mother would have. Finally, when she knows it is Him, He instructs her not to touch Him because He must first ascend to The Father. Unlike Lazarus, He has returned from the dead physically changed. Jesus’ journey is both a spiritual and a physical journey to becoming One with God.

    This is why it makes so much sense what you say Father Dave, about starting at Jesus and working your way up to God, because this was His Glorious Journey. To say only ‘Jesus is God,’ can easily reduce Him to an idol upon which any self-serving thing can be projected.

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