One of the highlights of my almost thirty years at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, was the 2015 publication of the book by John Coleman and Bob Irving – “A Church for our Times” – which did an amazing job of detailing the colourful history of our church community over the last 150 years. One of the things though that the book did not tell me was why our community was ever called ‘the church of the Holy Trinity’.
I read through the first chapter of the book again yesterday, just to make sure I didn’t miss something, and then I rang one of the authors, just to make really sure. No, there was no mention of why we are the Church of the Holy Trinity, and that’s because neither John nor Bob have a clue!
If you wander down Marrickville Road you’ll bump into St Brigid’s – the largest church in our region. There’s no great puzzle there as to why that community was named after Brigid. Brigid of Kildare was a great saint, who founded numerous monasteries. We can only hope and pray that our churches produce a few more like Brigid.
Or wander up New Canterbury Road towards Hurlstone Park and you’ll bump into the community of St Paul of the Cross. Again, we don’t have to think too hard to as to why someone would name their community after the great Saint Paul. If only our region could produce a few more Saint Paul’s. it might generate a degree of chaos and bring down the housing prices a little, but no doubt it would be a very good thing.
The more difficult question is why those good souls who had the vision to found our community decided to name us after a concept rather than a person, and not just after any concept, but after an extraordinarily obscure and divisive concept!
Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps I shouldn’t be referring to the Trinity as a concept. The Trinity is a person, isn’t it, or rather, it is three persons, or, at least, it is three persons so long as we don’t confound the persons nor divide the substance:
For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords.
Sorry. I’m lapsing into the Athanasian creed, which hard not to do when you’re discussing the Trinity as it’s there that you’ll find the concept most fully laid out.
Appropriately, as the church of the Holy Trinity, we love that creed, though I suspect that many of us would agree with Dorothy Sayers’ summation – “the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible”.
Yes, the doctrine of the Trinity is an obscure and difficult – even incomprehensible – concept, and, as I say, it is divisive. Indeed, it has historically been the litmus test, determining who is a genuine member of the church universal and who is not. This is how we determine who are insiders and who are outsiders. Do you accept the first three creeds of the church? Do you believe in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity?
Those who answer ‘yes’ to the Trinitarian shibboleth include all Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican churches. Those who fall into the outer darkness by balking at doctrine include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Christadelphians and, of course, Muslims!
When I asked my friend, Sheikh Mansour, what he thought it would take to bring real unity between Christians and Muslims worldwide, he said to me “I think if we could get past this doctrine of the Trinity there would be no real barrier”.
It was a couple of years ago since we had that conversation in Tehran, but I remember it well as Mansour became quite passionate about it. He said he had Christian friends who asked him if he could explain the doctrine of the Trinity to them and he said he could not. Mansour’s point was that if neither Christians nor Muslims really understood what this doctrine was about, why were we allowing it to divide us?
Why indeed, and why, you might ask, would a person like me, who is passionately invested in trying to build bridges between Christians and Muslims be unwilling to abandon this teaching even though I admit it is incomprehensible.
To answer that we need to know the history of the doctrine of the Trinity and how it came to be formed.
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 doesn’t mean that they are not significant!
My father used to say to me that if I pulled up the floorboards and looked at the electrical circuitry of our house – both correctly wired up and incorrectly wired – it would all look pretty much the same to me. 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 sometimes be highly significant!
Was 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 so! For one thing, the problem with Arius’ position – that Jesus is like the Father – is that it makes good 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 Muhamad 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 day.
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 concept of God as a distant ‘force’ that 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 start with an Islamic conception of a God – one who is so holy and transcendent that He is really entirely beyond this world? You’d probably find it impossible to equate Jesus with that god too.
Athanasius says ‘what if, instead of starting with whatever concept of God your culture has given you, we turn the whole process upside-down? What if, instead of starting with a 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 humble 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 begin with a working concept of God, passed on to us by our culture, long before we get any real understanding of Jesus. In white-Australian culture we generally inherit a version of the Greek concept of God as a distant spiritual force who inhabits another dimension of time and space – either that or a combination of that with the 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 a force that cares and strengthens but doesn’t get too involved. 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 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 any real sense.
But what if we turn it on its head? What if, instead of starting with our 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, that He liked parties, touched lepers, and gave healing and dignity to people who’d never known it, and that He suffered on the cross, but on the third day rose again!’
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?’ … If these questions disturb you, you’re feeling 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? Maybe we don’t need to make sense of that. Perhaps incomprehensible is okay? Perhaps it’s trying to make sense of God that is the beginning of all heresy? Perhaps instead of trying to think our way towards a logical conception of God, 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 doctrine of the Trinity. It is not just an incomprehensible set of beliefs about God. It is a different way of approaching God. This is why we cling to this doctrine and name our communities after it, because we insist on doing our thinking about God starting at God’s human end, because we recognise 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 …
First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 16th of June.
Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org