Words on the Word
Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40: Has any god ventured to take to himself one nation?
Romans 8:14-17: The spirit you received is the spirit of sons. It makes us cry, Abba!
Matthew 28:16-20: Baptise all nations, and know that I am with you.
The doctrine of the Trinity is basic to our Christian faith. Everything else we confess as true flows from it, depends on it. Without the Trinity, the incarnation would make no sense. Without the incarnation, there would be no Christmas, no Easter. Without Christmas or Easter, Christianity would be reduced to a mere school of wisdom—and that, indeed, is how our world increasingly views it, precisely because it does not grasp our faith’s transcendent roots. Given the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity, it is a pity it is so hard to speak about it. Either we tend towards an incomprehensible level of abstraction; or we simplify matters to such an extent that we end up with something ridiculous. I still remember how my RS teacher at school—an upright, fine man—forlornly drew triangular diagrams on the blackboard while I, a cynical thirteen year-old, sat cocksure, arms crossed, and thought, ‘That can’t be true!’ The truth of what my teacher tried to convey imposed itself only later—and then, as it were, from within. I do think it’s the case that our heart must have some inkling of the trinitarian mystery before our mind can begin to understand it. Let’s leave triangles and other symbols to one side, therefore, and approach the question from a quite different angle.
To speak of God is to speak of ultimate reality, that is, a reality that is the wellspring of everything else that exists. In the plethora of world religions, there are systems that profess a multiplicity of gods, each entrusted with a particular task or element of life, variously in conflict or collaboration with fellow gods. Our mythologies, whether Norse or Greek, are coloured by such a perception. The religious and philosophical breakthrough of Judaism, whose grateful heirs we are, was to extend human thought sufficiently to conceive of a single God, a single absolute power, the source at once of life and truth. We must never forget what a revolutionary move this was, what intellectual and moral courage was required of the patriarchs.
Israel increasingly knew this unique God, not as a remote cosmic principle, but as a personal God, who addressed them, showed his faithfulness and asked for faith in return. Our reading from Deuteronomy voices the sense of privilege Israel rightly felt: ‘Ask from one end of heaven to the other, was such a great thing ever heard of? Did any people ever hear the word of a god speaking out of the midst of fire? Has any god ever tried to take a nation for himself?’ Because God is a Person he acts personally, not generically. He chooses, calls, and blesses persons, not humanity at large; and he invites us to make a personal response, a response no one else can make on our behalf. In this, we see both God’s supreme freedom and ours, a freedom that is our glory.
The gradual discovery of God’s trinitarian nature flowed from this personal encounter. It was revealed fully by Christ, but intimations had long been alive in the heart of Judaism. The Fathers recognised these in the figure of Wisdom, which shows God, somehow, in dialogue with himself, and in the mysterious ‘we’ with which God, in Scripture, refers to himself, as in Genesis 1:26, when he says, ‘Let us make man in our image’. To say that God is One-in-Three, Three-in-One, is not to say that the Source of being and truth has turned manifold; it is to say that, within this Source of all, life is in movement—it is shared. As Christians, we profess that ultimate reality is not monolithic, but a living communion. We speak of the ‘Persons’ of the Trinity. Let us be careful not to interpret this as three individuals living together in a house. The word ‘person’ in Latin had a much more flexible sense than it does for us. It stood for the mask an actor wore on stage, to signify his persona. We could responsibly render it as ‘aspect’. Simply to savour this term opens new horizons. In any case, let’s not delude ourselves into thinking we are able to define the nature of God. Human words cannot, by definition, contain it. What we can hold on to is this: God’s threeness tells us that ultimate reality is motion and flow, a current of love that is never still; God’s oneness, meanwhile, speaks of permanence, enabling us to trace goodness, beauty, and truth to a single source, and so to apply these terms to our visible world as well, as reliable, meaningful markers, not just as relative notions about which each is free to make up his or her mind as fancy suggests. To confess God as Trinity is to profess that God is love, not in the sense of being a celestial radiator beaming out over creation, but in the sense of being one whose Being is to give and to receive, who therefore is vulnerable in his omnipotence. For what kind of giving and receiving does not make us susceptible to wounds? Being at once omnipotent and exposed, the God we profess, who was incarnate in Christ, can bestow his strength and touch our weakness. He transforms our fears. He enlightens our senses and minds. He lets us leave our solitary shells and delve into the adventure of love. May we never tire of marvelling at this mystery. May it luminously transform our hearts and renew our lives. Amen.