It is Trinity Sunday once again and, tempted as I am to preach on the appointed Gospel reading for today, I have opted once again to focus instead on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity <groan>. And I can hear the groans in my spirit, even if hearers are too polite to express them openly! ‘Why, for God’s sake, does he have to preach on the doctrine of the Trinity … again?!’
Well … it is for God’s sake that I do preach on the doctrine of the Trinity and, more precisely, for Christ’s sake, and also for your sake, and this despite the fact that doctrine as a whole is generally perceived as being both boring and confusing, and that the doctrine of the Trinity in particular is perceived as being the most boring and most confusing doctrine in the entire boring and confusing pool of orthodox Christian dogma!
‘The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible’– that’s how Dorothy Sayers’ summed it up so beautifully. What’s the point of trying to explain the incomprehensible? Why do I bother putting you through this each year?
Each year we celebrate Trinity Sunday. Each year I eulogise on the wonders of this doctrine in all its Byzantine complexity, and each year when we come back to affirm its truth in the words of the Athanasian Creed we do so with as little clarity and enthusiasm as we did the year before!
And the problem is not only that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is confusing. It’s also divisive! For it is the doctrine of the Trinity, more than any other, that has historically divided us from the other great monotheistic religions. Indeed, it is the doctrine of the Trinity that leads us to apply the label ‘heretic’ not only to those who call themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons but also to our brothers and sisters in Islam!
Why not simply dispense with the doctrine of the Trinity or at least ignore it? Would not both life and faith be simpler, and would not the church be less intimidating and more inclusive?
I think there are good reasons for sticking with the doctrine of the Trinity. For one thing, if we abandoned the Trinity we’d have to change the name of our church, and I’m blowed if we’re ever going to be known as ‘Herbert Street Community Church’ or anything trendy like that so long as I’m here! Besides that, we can’t afford the cost of changing the letterhead on all the stationary!
There is also a more serious reason why we should not, in my view, abandon the Trinity, and that’s because the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t simply tell us what to think about God but, more importantly, it tells us how we should do our thinking about God, or at least it tells us how our forefathers and foremothers in the faith thought about God, and why they considered their way of thinking so important that it was worth distinguishing themselves from other monotheists for the sake of maintaining their distinctive insights!
It all started in the year 313, in a town called 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 the 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 the Father), but was ‘homoousios’ (of the same substance as 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 both Arius and Athanasius!
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!
My father used to say to me that if I could look at the circuitry of our house – both correctly wired up and incorrectly wired – it all looks pretty much the same to the untrained eye. Who cares whether we have it exactly right? Well … when you find yourself sitting in the dark you start to care, for being close to right and being exactly right can be highly significant!
Is the conflict 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 it is! For one thing, the problem with Arius’ position – that Jesus is like the Father – is that it makes sense! A human being surely cannot 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 persons, they are both the one God, just doesn’t work as a logical 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 Scriptures. Indeed, I would suggest to you that what Athanasius did, in all his fumbling paradoxical language, was to preserve for us 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?’ For when someone says ‘I find it hard to believe that Jesus could be God’, they obviously already have a predefined concept of God, such that they cannot 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 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 with us too aggressively.
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 or she isn’t really capable of doing very much anyway. As one commentator said, our culture’s current concept of God is like that guy who, when your car is broken down at the side of the road, drives by and calls out ‘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 much 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 know much about God, but what I do know is that He had arms and legs and lived in Palestine for a while, that He liked parties, 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 believe, was the basic mindset of our fathers and mothers who wrote those creeds! The doctrine of the Trinity was a historic decision of the church that we 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.
I understand why many of my Islamic friends and feminist friends and others find this way of thinking repugnant! ‘Are you saying that God was Jewish and that God had a penis? Are you saying God went to the toilet?’ …
Are you starting to feel the pull of Arius’ position? For indeed I think the proper Trinitarian response to such questions is ‘Hey! That’s not even half of it! We are saying that God bled and suffered and died in Jesus!’
How do you make sense of that? I don’t think you can make sense of God. Indeed, I suspect that trying to make sense of God is the beginning of all heresy. Instead of trying to think our way towards a logical conception of God, perhaps we should simply grab hold of the near end of God – the human end that we see in Jesus – and begin our thinking, prayer and worship there!
This is the Christian faith. It’s not simply a different set of beliefs about God. It’s a different way of approaching 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 …
This is the faith of the Church. This is the doctrine of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit – a unity in Trinity and Trinity in unity that is to be worshiped. Amen.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 15th of June, 2014.