Today, Trinity Sunday, I want to encourage us to reflect on the doctrine of the Trinity. This is one of the most enduring and central descriptions of God maintained by Christians around the world. In the coming year I intend to encourage our congregation to think and pray about the ways we care for each other. This is both a question of our individual disposition and a structural question. The reality for our congregation and for many others is that the ways we’ve cared for each other in the past are no longer as effective as they once were. Things have changed. Given that context, you can think of the reflections that follow as a bit of a rationale for why that’s an important question. Psalm 8 was a part of our liturgy this morning but Prov. 8:1-4, 22-31 and John 16:12-15 are our central readings. As we begin reflecting on the doctrine of the Trinity in the context of these passages, I wonder if I can admit something . . . I don’t really like the book of Proverbs (gasp!). Can I admit that as a pastor? The book irritates me.
Here’s an example, Proverbs 16:7, “When the ways of people please the LORD, he causes even their enemies to be at peace with them.” Here’s another from the same chapter (v. 18), “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” I’ve had far too many conversations with wonderful people who are experiences intense suffering to believe that the world always works in such neat and tidy ways. If I had to spend a month on a deserted island and I had to take one book from the collection of wisdom literature I would rather have the book of Job, that’s the one about the guy who lost everything and sat in a pile of ashes scraping his sores with a piece of broken pottery.
The book of Proverbs is mostly a collection of wise sayings. This a popular ancient genre, maybe as popular as self-help literature is today. Some of these sayings come from Solomon’s court, some from surrounding nations. I know that the wise sayings in Proverbs weren’t intended to be read without the proverbial ‘grain of salt’, but still they seem too tidy, too easy, too formulaic: do X,Y,Z and life will be perfect, avoid this one food and you’ll lose that belly fat.
That last one is from the internet not from Proverbs, but the tone seems the same.
So I must admit that it took the demands of preaching to drag me to Proverbs once again. What I noticed, though, was that it isn’t actually until chapter 9 verse 7 that you get into the pithy sayings. The first eight chapters and a bit are more poetic, less pedantic. They set up a choice for us between listening to foolishness and wisdom. Foolishness and wisdom are personified as two women, the one a seductress and the other a wise teacher who offers her learning to her household and the city residents beyond. At the beginning of chapter 8 Wisdom calls across the city, “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. . . . Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.”
At various points in the history of Christian thought there have been attempts to say that Wisdom is God herself. Scholars and mystics have suggested that perhaps this is another way of referring to the Holy Spirit, or to a feminine side of God marginalized by the patriarchy of western Christendom.
In the 1930s this discussion of Holy Wisdom, or Sophia, was potent enough to cause significant rifts among Russian intellectuals exiled in Paris. The thought of Sergei Bulgakov and Pavel Florensky was at the center of this controversy and their work lead to significant interest in the idea among later scholars.
Obviously that could become a discussion all its own. What I want to point out here is that within Scripture itself the New Testament writers apply these themes to Jesus. In Colossians 1:15 Paul describes Jesus as the “firstborn of all creation” and the “image of the invisible God.” Paul took the Prov. 8 picture of Wisdom and applied it to Jesus. The beginning of the gospel of John describes Jesus as the Word, the logos, the rationality of the universe. This too seems to be a development of Wisdom theology. What’s more, in Matthew’s gospel Jesus implies that he embodies wisdom (11:19; 12:42). The point being that in Jesus we see the Wisdom of God with skin on.
We’re finding that we’re walking into Trinitarian territory. For some of us this is unsettling ground.
A few weeks ago I was walking with two of my children along a hillside. It was a warm day. That fact is the most important. We were walking through a field that hadn’t been planted yet. We were pulling up what was left of last year’s cornstalks and launching them into the air. They would land with a thump, the dry soil making mini-explosions. The dust hung in the air and stuck to the sweat on our faces.
The hill that sloped down to the field was covered with dead grass, bent over and tangled. There was brush there too; it was all crisp and crackly. On occasion we heard what sounded like bits of dirt landing in the old grass—a subtle “shhh.” And then during a cease fire we heard something more sustained: not a “shhh,” but a “shhhhhhh” and then, again, “shhhhhhhh.” There was a flicker of movement, black and green on the tan grass, extended lines—shadows that seemed to slide.
I know some of you love snakes, but on that hot day at the edge of the field I couldn’t help but shudder. My pace slowed. I walked like I was on ice, worried that every clump I stepped on would move. We counted more than a dozen snakes within ten meters.
I was unsettled.
The idea that in God there is both unity and distinction unsettles us too. We worry that maybe we worship three Gods or that being a Christian requires an ignorance of basic math. The Trinitarian character of God should unsettle us, but for more significant reasons. To say that God is triune—three distinct persons, united in the same essential substance—isn’t really to engage in a mathematical puzzle or to speak some riddle that we need to figure out. No, I think the Trinity should unsettle us for a more personal reason. A line from I John 4:8 explains what I mean:
Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
It seems that if I, or if you, do not love others it cannot be true that we know God. This is the unsettling stuff. Let’s let it slither around in our heads for a bit.
“God is love”—the basis of the Trinity is that God doesn’t just love, but is love. I know some of us are worried that when we speak of God as triune we introduce a troubling power dynamic into the life of God. My response (all too brief) would be to say ‘yes’ to the reality of power, but to suggest that God’s unified will and loving being transforms what that implies. God is love. And what this means for us, is that if we don’t love others we don’t know God; to learn to know God is to learn to love others.
Another way of saying this might be to say that proximity matters. Have you told a funny story that started off well, “So I walked out of the change room . . .” and then you had to trail off apologetically with some comment like, “. . . I guess you had to be there.” That’s happened to all of us. The thing is that the audience had to be there because things affected you and the others who were there in a way that words couldn’t quite capture. The context changed how you heard the funny/not funny line. Being in that particular social situation opened you up to receiving something in a way you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
And so it is with God. God is love because within God there is relationship. Within the unity of the One God there is distinction, and on account of that distinction there can be love before and without creation. To encounter the one who exists eternally in loving unity and distinction changes you. It makes you second guess yourself. It makes you think twice about where you place our feet or what you say.
One of the scholars I’ve been reading over the past months on the topic of the Trinity is an ordained minister and theologian named Sarah Coakley. She’s a feminist, an Anglican (please forgive her for that last one) and taught at both Cambridge and Harvard. Coakley thinks there is much for us to gain in our current approach to issues of sexuality and gender through reflection on God’s triune being. She suggests that our knowledge of the triune God begins with prayer, which is to say with openness to God. One of the things this means is that the God we experience is not some isolated monad who exists far off, about who we develop theories and technical ideas. No, the God we experience is both beyond all and very near, that is the transcendent Creator and the Spirit. And so too Scripture and our life of prayer attest, God is revealed in Jesus—the Word, Wisdom in human flesh.
Nowhere in Scripture do we have the word ‘Trinity’ or ‘triune’. Nowhere in Scripture do we read that God is like an egg (shell, white and yolk) or like water (vapor, liquid, ice) or any other unhelpful analogy. Instead, what we have are passages like John 16:12-15 that speak of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, or the great commission (baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit) or the baptism of Jesus itself (where the Spirit descends on Jesus, and the Father speaks). In addition to encountering traces of the Trinity in our life of prayer, as Coakley suggests, the witness of Scripture manifests this same way of being.
I’ve used the traditional male-oriented terminology here, Father and Son. I’m aware that this can be frustrating, and I’m not suggesting that our description of God’s triune being needs to be limited to that. However, these terms are used, not because Christians believe God is male. We do not. Let us be clear about that! We do not believe God is male because there is no reason to believe God has any male anatomical features. We do not believe God is male because throughout Scripture God displays capacities traditionally ascribed to both women and men. So to speak of God as ‘Father’ is not to say that God is a man; rather, it is to imitate Jesus in addressing the one who sends the Son into the world.
If we must use gendered pronouns to speak of God in total, the three persons of the Trinity collectively, I see no reason not to use ‘Her’—though I must admit it still feels odd on my tongue. Let’s just not say “he or she” or “him/her,” as though God were gendered but just hard to figure out.
I’m being a little more confessional here than I usually am. Not because my beliefs are any more important than yours but because in expressing them I hope to give you something on which to ruminate.
I do believe in the Trinity. I believe the doctrine of the Trinity is biblical and traditional in the richest sense. I believe the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t peripheral or obscure but is part of the grammar of the Christian faith. That is, it tells us how to speak truthfully about God. I believe that to say God is triune isn’t to eliminate the mystery of divinity but to deepen it. I believe that to affirm the Trinity does not doom us to an unchanging social conservatism, but gives us vision to see new possibilities.
It is when we fail to appreciate God’s presence both in Jesus and in the Spirit that Christians get locked into a listless conservatism or go off on scary, cultic tangents.
We can’t explore many of the important implications of God’s triune being here, but let me mention one by way of example. One of the challenges of our everyday lives, and a key intellectual challenge of the twenty first century is how we might appreciate similarity and difference at the same time. We want to be able to say, for instance, that women and men are equal and should be treated so and we want to say that they are different and should be treated so. As a society we are caught between saying that all cultural groups are equal and also saying that they have unique needs and unique gifts. Teachers know this same dynamic: your students are the same but different. It’s also true in our friendships and intimate relationships. Most basically this challenge is the challenge of love. How do we love each other, love our students, love our friends, love our spouses, love our neighbors?
Scripture gives us a whole host of wisdom on how we are to love. But all of it is grounded in the fact that God is love. In God there is a never ending fellowship of distinction in unity. It’s a sort of nuclear fusion that powers the universe. In the union of the first and second persons of the Trinity a binding energy is released—the power of the Spirit. Not only are we drawn in by the beauty of the divine life but we are remade by it. The doctrine of the Trinity is unsettling, unsettling in the same way a true work of art is. It draws us and changes us. It mystifies us and satisfies us. If we are coming to know God, we are coming to love.
Glory to the Father, and to Son and to the Holy Spirit—the One who creates, redeems and enlivens—as it was in the beginning is now and will be forever. Amen.