11 Jun 2017
“‘For God so loved the world …’” (John 3:16) In the name …
Today is Trinity Sunday. This is basic, fundamental, essential Christian teaching. Without the Trinity, there is no Christianity. But for as important as the Trinity is to our faith, it is so hard to grasp that it basically lives in the mind and not the heart. It’s hard to pray to the Trinity when you’re hurting, for example. It doesn’t seem as “real” as praying to Jesus. But the Trinity to the mind was so important that it almost blew-up the early church. In an over-simplified description, the Trinity is the teaching that there is but one God, but the one God consists of three separate but equal Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Since there is only one God and since the three Persons all share in that one divine nature, that means the Father is not greater or more God than the Son, and the Son is not greater or more God than the Spirit, and the Spirit is not greater or more God than Father or Son. They are all equal because they all share the same divine essence, but they are also separate and unique at the exact same time.
How this is possible can only be approximated. Sometimes pastors today teach catechism students about the Trinity by using the example of H2O. This is the atomic structure of water. Put H2O in the freezer and it becomes a solid. Take the H2O out of the freezer and let it warm on the counter and it becomes a liquid. Pour the H2O in a pan and heat on the stove and it becomes a gas. But in each of the three forms it remains H2O. Again, this is only an approximation, but it is an attempt to grasp the idea of the same and different simultaneously.
But one approximation that should never be used to explain the Trinity is to depict God the Father as an old, white man with a beard. This is usually combined with a picture of the Son of God as a younger white male. God the Father is not older than God the Son, and it’s hard not to link these two images with the Father being more God than God the Son. This picture is full of theological problems. And the other problem is to picture the Holy Spirit as a dove. The dove has a rich and meaningful symbolic presence in the Bible, and is definitely used to depict the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is not actually a bird any more than Father or Son are white males. At the peak of our Main Altar is the representation of the Holy Spirit as a dove, but this is not to give the impression that the Spirit is radically different than the two men, God the Father and God the Son. We have to be careful to not limit God by our nature. The Holy Spirit as a bird seems less exalted than Father and Son, but we have to remember that even Father and Son are not just super-humans because God is not just a really powerful and really smart human. The nature of God is completely other and we’re only scratching the surface with any of the images, analogies and theologies we come up.
If all of this were not confusing enough, we have to bring Jesus of Nazareth into the story, and Jesus is the whole reason for why we have the Trinity. We believe that Jesus is not only a prophet and that He is even more than the Messiah. Christians have come to believe that Jesus is God incarnate, that Jesus brings all that is God into our world as one of us. The Trinity became a necessary thought to allow for God to remain transcendent while at the same time being the very real, very present Jesus of Nazareth. If you were a part of Bible study, this would be a lot easier to explain, but even as we read the Bible we can witness a progression of how people of faith spoke about Jesus. The later the writing the higher the Christology, the longer people thought about Jesus the more they emphasized His unique closeness to God. The carpenterin Mark’s Gospel becomes the Son of Godin John’s Gospel.
But even as the Bible closed, the theological progression continued, and continued along different paths. Once the Roman Empire made Christianity the State Religion, Emperor Constantine was shrewd enough to realize that a unified faith helped maintain a unified empire, and so he ordered the bishops of the church to all come together in the city of Nicaea in 325, nearly 300 years after the death of Jesus. At this first ecumenical council, with the Emperor presiding, the bishops agreed that Jesus, the Son of God, was of the same nature as God the Father. But the ones who argued that Jesus was like God, but not exactly equal with the Father kept up their arguments and turned the church’s teaching around, and so there was again confusion, and again, more than 50 years later, the church had to meet in council and decided for a second time that Jesus shared in the divine nature. It would take an additional 50 years and two more councils to officially sketch out the nature of Jesus of Nazareth as both fully human and fully divine, and to incorporate the Holy Spirit into this picture as well. All together it was some 420 years before the church finally accepted the doctrine of the Trinity.
When it takes more than four centuries to define this theology, we can be sure that the Trinity is not a clear-cut biblical concept. The Trinity is a teaching of the church through the continuing inspiration of the Spirit. The Trinity is an example that the church is not static, that instead, the church changes as it comes to better understand God and God’s relationship with us. The Trinity is the church’s attempt to explain that the eternal God had stepped out of heaven and into our world in Jesus. Ralph Waldo Emerson once urged Harvard divinity students to: “… cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.” That’s why our struggle with understanding the Trinity is worth all of the confusion because it is the theology that lets us meet God at first hand. And the Trinity explains that God so greatly desires this personal encounter because God “so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” This love defines God, is the nature of God, is the reason why the church finally emerged with a theology of the Trinity, because the Trinity “lets us meet God at first hand.” That we may actually do so, may this be our prayer in the name of the Father … (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo