Today is Trinity Sunday in the Anglican liturgical calendar. In my experience, it’s a feast people don’t really know how to handle: We aren’t celebrating an event in the life of Jesus, or an important story from history, but a dogma. And no matter how important a dogma might be, it doesn’t quite capture the imagination the way a great story does. This awkwardness is fitting in light of the awkwardness most Christians seem to have about the Trinity. Most Christians would say that it is clearly an important distinctive of Christian theology, but very few can articulate what is actually means, fewer can articulate it well, without falling into one of the logical but heretical traps, and fewer still have much sense of why it’s important. There tends to be almost an apologetic attitude about the Trinity, as though it’s something we need to believe in but we’re kind of annoyed that that’s the case. There is almost a grumpy frustration at the Church Fathers for formulating this dogma in such a precise, counter-intuitive and difficult way.
I think this attitude is counter-productive and rather unfair. The theologians who crafted the dogma of the Trinity were very bright and learned men. They knew their articulations of this belief were difficult and inadequate, yet they also knew these articulations were necessary. I think part of the problem we have today in understanding the Trinity and its importance is that we come at it from the wrong direction, from the Creed to its rationale, rather than looking at the doctrine’s origins and understanding how it was built up. In a sense, I don’t think anyone starts out wanting to be a Trinitarian. It’s a weird and illogical idea: something cannot be one and three at the same time. We know this instinctively, which is why all the traditional (and yes, not quite orthodox) images for the Trinity – the shamrock or states of water, etc – are recycled century after century despite their inadequacy. So if we all know that the Trinity doesn’t make sense, why did this dogma come about?
The doctrine that God is Three yet One and One yet Three developed precisely because there was no other way for the early Church to explain their experience of God. The Church experienced the presence of the Spirit in their midst. The Church experienced Christ in their midst, ‘wherever two or more are gathered’. The Church experienced the Father to Whom Jesus prayed and unto Whom Jesus ascended. Three distinct experiences of God, yet a single God. Moreover, these distinct experiences of Father, Son, and Spirit could not be understood in isolation from each other. To think of the Son required them to think of the Father and the Spirit; to give praise of the Father required them no less to praise the Son and the Spirit; and to experience the Spirit was simultaneously an experience of the Father and the Son. These experiences could not be teased apart by function or partition. They were distinct yet inseparable.
When controversies arose about just how divine or just how human Jesus was, it became clear that the Church was going to have to attempt to articulate this complicated experience in some way, all the while understanding that it was a mystery that could not be adequately described. None of the Fathers was entirely happy with the language he used, and I’m convinced that they would have universally preferred simply to uphold the Trinity as a mystery without further comment had the controversies about Jesus not arisen.
Now, one might argue that the controversies weren’t important enough to justify this move – halting and unwanted as it was – towards attempting to articulate and explain this mystery that has baffled generations of Christians. Yet, these were very serious controversies at the time, controversies which threatened Christian unity and, many believed, salvation itself. The early Church believed that the incarnation was not only a descent, but also an ascent: not only did God become human, but in that same process so too does the human become divine. Denying either Jesus’ full humanity or full divinity, therefore, left some aspect of humanity (whatever ‘part’ of the human that God did not take on) outside the sphere of salvation. This means that, while we might not see much at stake in a controversy about whether the Son has a ‘similar nature’ as the Father or an ‘identical’ one, or whether Jesus had a fully human will or not, the Church in the fourth and fifth centuries most definitely did. And it would be uncharitable for us to look back and say those concerns were unimportant. Just think about the passionate responses people have towards controversies in the Church today, and then realize that these are really just about minor points of Christian ethics and discipline, as compared to the debates then that were about GOD and salvation. For the Nicene Fathers and those in the generations that followed — far from trying to explain the unexplainable or pin God down — their articulations served to preserve for the Church the Mystery of Faith.
How then do we handle this tricky dogma and its trickier celebration in the Church? I think it’s a time – after the celebrations of Holy Week and Easter, and Pentecost – to relive the early Christians’ experience of God: as Father, as Son, and as Spirit, to wonder at how these experiences point to each other and bump into each other, and thereby to sink more deeply into the Mystery all this entails. And then, to give thanks for those who made sure – through their teaching and the Creeds they bequeathed to us – that this Mystery was preserved for us and for our salvation.