Rev Tammy Hollands
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday or as I like to refer to “heresy Sunday”. It is unusual when compared to other days in the Christian calendar as it is the only day church celebrates a doctrine not an event or a person. And what a doctrine! There are multiple analogies to try to explain this three in one God but all are heretical, that is all fail at some point.
First let’s look at why it was historically important. Remember Jesus and the apostles were faithful Jews whose understanding of God was monotheistic. Their traditional creed was the “Shema”: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall worship no other God.” They had all grown up reciting that several times a day. But after the death and resurrection of Jesus and when the gospels were being written, such as the Gospel reading for this Sunday Matthew 18:16-20, they are talking about worshipping Jesus, the risen messiah, and of being baptised in the name of the “Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. At some point you can imagine someone challenges their monotheism and says, “you seem to be talking about three different gods”, so they begin having to try to nut it out as a doctrine. For the Gentiles among them from the Greek and Roman world the problem would not have been the multiple gods but that there is only one God as they were used to a whole pantheons of gods – a god of this, that and the other. Offering worship to Father, Son and Holy Spirit would just be like switching to a smaller pantheon.
One way of representing the Trinity is with an isosceles triangle, with the Father on top, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit referred to by name but definitely not coequal with God. The problem with this representation is that we project onto God our own hierarchical way of ordering life. As the doctrine was being determined a guy called Arius argued that Jesus should be understood as an exceptional human being but not equal to or one with God. Arius believed God was so far above humans that the idea of God taking on human expression was an outrage. He believed God, by definition, is exalted, holy, pure, absolute, glorious, and the idea of such a God lowering himself to become personally involved with his creatures was demeaning and blasphemous. It made God like one of the gods of the Greek pantheon, a sort of superhero , like Zeus, who ate and drank and fought and occasionally dropped in for a sexual liaison which might result in fathering, or for the sake of gender equality, Aphrodite, giving birth to a part-human children. A disgusting insult to God, said Arius.
You may have heard the Trinity is like the three leaves of the one clover leaf. The problem with this analogy is that each of the leaves is only part of the whole. This means that neither Jesus the Christ, nor God the Father, nor the Holy Spirit are fully God without the other. This is a heresy called Partialism and it was declared a heresy in the Athanasian Creed in 5th century. Other similar analogies that fall into this heresy include the 3 parts of the egg, shell yoke and white, an apple with the skin, fruit and seeds, or an Oreo biscuit, cream and biscuit.
Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, argued that being self-contained, superior and distant is not the essential feature of God. Rather the essential defining feature of God was self-giving love that gives and gives and gives. And that this self-giving occurs between the Father and the Son and the Spirit. And this self-giving looks outwards and expresses itself in nearness to others.
Another analogy is the states of water analogy, water as a solid in ice, a liquid as it comes out the tap and gas that steams up the bathroom during a long hot shower or that rises and dances over your hot cup of tea or coffee. The problem with this analogy is that it suggests God changes forms in different situations. God is no longer three different persons but appears in each form at different times or as God pleases. was declared the heresy of Modalism in the 4th century. Other similar anologies that fall into this heresy include an actor who plays different roles, a person who is both a daughter, mother and wife.
Another analogy says that God is like the sun. The sun is God the Father while the light represents the Jesus the Christ and the heat represents the Holy Spirit. The problem with this one is that by this analogy God the Father would be the only divine being since the light and heat are products of the sun, that is, they are created by the sun. We do not believe that the Holy Spirit or Jesus the Christ were created beings so this was declared the heresy of Arianism in 4th century.
So what difference does it make to us today?
It is important because our understanding of the Trinity influences our understanding of God. Arians views of God as high exalted and separate from creation are still very common.
This sort of thinking has influenced Christian interpretation and despite having agreed that Jesus is one with God, we took all the things we thought we already knew about God and interpreted Jesus in light of them, when the whole point of God’s self-revelation in Jesus was for us to do the exact opposite: to take what Jesus taught and did, and reinterpret God in light of him.
Paul in his letter to the Colossians (1:15) describes Jesus as “exact likeness of the invisible God” In other words, if we want to know what the invisible God is like, we should look at Jesus and project all that he is and does on to God. Instead, we have assumed that we already knew what there was to know about God. God was an all-powerful warrior, king and judge who rules the earth with an iron fist, demands perfect obedience, and burns with a fierce and vengeful anger over our disobedience and unfaithfulness. And God, like all the other gods of the ancient world, was a god whose anger would destroy us all unless it could be appeased by the paying of a price in blood.
So rather than asking the most important question; does that description of God make sense if God is exactly like Jesus? We set about constructing a theory about Jesus that would enable us to leave that picture of God intact and somehow fit Jesus into it. And so we end up with doctrines of Jesus which ignore most of what Jesus said about God and most of how he behaved, and instead make him out to be little more than the perfect blood sacrifice that pays off a violent blood-thirsty god.
What happens if we go the other way? The way God intended and interpret God and all of the scriptures through what Jesus said and did? For example, in Romans 5, Paul didn’t say “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ because Jesus manages, at great personal cost, to stop God from hating us and hurling us into hell.” Instead he said, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace.” He describes God as a God who is characterised by grace, not by blood-thirsty anger. God is infinitely gracious, he says, and we can know that because we have seen that in Jesus and begun to experience it in and through Jesus. Paul is describing God in terms that do justice to his conviction that Jesus is the revelation of God. He sees God as a God of grace and love and extravagant generosity, and he knows that because that is what he saw in Jesus.
When Jesus is the lens through which all scripture is interpreted then maybe we would see God and God’s relationship with his creation differently. Maybe we would see it more like this:
beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
2 He was with God in the beginning.
3 All things came to be through him
And when the earth was unformed and void, the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water. Then God created light, sea, land stars and all the creatures. Seeing all that was made God said it was very good. And there was space and there was time and creation became separate from God so God set about reconciling to Godself the creation. First coming close to a person, Abram, who in time became a nation and then to prophets but still the separation was too great so God came close as a person, Jesus the Christ, to reconcile and reveal God’s grace and love. God’s grace, love and truth continues to be revealed by the Spirit who reveals more truths in each age, not speaking independently, but taking the things of Jesus, the things of God and makes them known to us. Father, Son and Holy Spirit speaking with one voice and sings from the same song sheet.