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Why Bother with the Trinity?

Why Bother with the Trinity?

“Nonsense doesn’t become sense simply because you talk it about God.” – C.S. Lewis


If you travel across The USA very much you’ve seen a variety of souvenirs from various states and cities. One of my favourite American souvenirs is a small tuna-fish sized can, usually in a brightly coloured wrapper, and on the label is says, “Seattle Air,” or “Denver Air,” or “______ Air.” The idea is that after you get back home you can open the can and breathe a little of the air that inspired you while you were on vacation. Maybe it will help you recall memories of the mountains, or the beach. It’s the cleverest of ideas. Air is free, after all; and tourists are all too keen to spend their money for something that will help them remember the good times. I wish I’d thought of it.


Sometimes we have the idea about God that if only we can package the experience of the divine, put it in a container of words and images, that we will be able to open the can at will and re-experience something of the ineffable God. That’s a mistake, of course. But, it is nearly impossible to stop the human mind from expressing itself and the only things it has are words and images. Even imagination is lost without the very tools that ultimately constrain it.


That brings us to Trinity Sunday. We’ve been through the nativity with it’s pageantry, Lent and Holy Week have come and gone, Easter broke forth in glory, and Pentecost came with fire, and now it all culminates — not with glory, or singing, or miracles — but with a doctrine. A doctrine. What a let down. Scripture was the basis of our faith stories up to now, but there is no great discourse on The Trinity. It appears to be wholly made up, it is a barrier to inter-faith relations, and it is completely incomprehensible. You can’t talk about it for more than a minute without wandering into one heresy of another. So, why bother?


Later in the summer many of us will tell vacation stories, and through the telling we may begin to make sense of the places we’ve been and the experiences we’ve had. Early Christians were like that too. They’d heard stories about God, the father. Many of them had lived with and travelled with Jesus, God’s begotten son. And on the day of Pentecost they experienced God’s spirit descend like a whooshing fire! It is inconceivable that they wouldn’t talk about that and try to make sense of a God who could present so differently.


Gods in those days weren’t nuanced creatures. As subjects of the Roman Empire, early followers of Jesus would have known about 12 major Gods, each of whom had its own realm of influence. While Romans may have believed in a kind of numen — an undefined, ever-present spirit — they mainly interacted with transactional, predictable, Gods… all neatly packaged (in a can?) and understood. But the God of this new sect called simply The Way, encountered a God of nuance, character, relationship. In wrestling with the nature of God, trying to integrate their new experiences, they no doubt turned to their own tradition and language, and one of the first things they would have thought of is the Shema.


The Shema has been recited by God’s faithful followers for a long time. I mean, a really long time. And, traditionally, they recite it in Hebrew. It goes like this, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.” Or, if you want it in English, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” At this point a lot of people go all mathematical, and we call that Unitarianism. Some people call it the Heresy of Unitarianism, but I don’t want to judge. But, before we start counting out One God, Two Gods, etc… we should take a closer look at the word Echad, bearing in mind that language and translation is never a word-for-word exchange. There is meaning beyond that. Sure, Echad means one, but it can also refer to what W. A. Pratney has called “a compound or collective unity.” For example, in marriage, “the two shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:24) and a crowd can “come together as one” as in Ezekiel 3:1. A group of people can be of one heart or mind as in 1 Chronicles 12:38, “All the rest of Israel were of one heart to make David King.” This language, the compound plural, is always used when God is called “One.” That’s important.


So, God might be more complex than a mere number. The early followers of Jesus would surely have understood this. That is why they could write of God the Father, God the Son, and the God the Holy Spirit all referring to themselves individually as “I.” And they also wrote that they can all refer to the other as “thou.” But, wait, there’s more! They love one another and they talk about one another too! Yet, they are Echad… one.


So, why does that matter? And why should we devote an entire “doctrine” to it? Here’s why: God is complex, arguably complicated, because we are complex. You may remember that the original plan was that we were created in the image and likeness of God. It is only reasonable to believe that God is at least as complex as we are. God is self-aware, paying attention. God is relational, not transactional. God is present to each compound of the collective. And the final bit of good news is that this God loves. So, when we recite the ancient creeds, we are not proclaiming three Gods, but one God who is a collective unity. Or, as Clark Pinnock and Robert C. Brow said in Unbounded Love, “The idea of the Trinity does not supersede monotheism; it interprets it, in the light of a specific set of revelatory events and experiences.”


Here’s the gospel in the Trinity: God speaks of Godself as an individual, “I am…” God says. God the Father says it, God the Son says it, God the Holy Spirit says it. That is part of the Trinity, or the inner life of God. God is also present to the other members of the divine collective. God the Father is, God the Son is, and God the Holy Spirit is. Equally, and of the exact same substance. One uncreated, one begotten, one proceeding… Together they are pledged to a love relationship. There are Bible verses for that. But, it doesn’t end there. The trinity does not exist for itself. It is also a model of created order. There is the God, utterly uncreated. And there are those who are “thou,” creatures like you and me. And we are held together in love, presence, mutual adoration with love proceeding from the very dance that we share with a complicated, maddening, loving, exhilarating, present, confounding, triune, and ineffable God. So, when the dance seems to be spinning out of control, take heart. The love that binds you to God is a strong as the love that is God.


Some Notes of Possible Interest

It is important that we call Jesus the begotten. It’s a word that tells us that the only way he can exist is through a being that was not caused by anything. That can only be God. The rest of us are merely created. And God is God because nothing outside of God caused God to exist. That is not why God is God, but is one of the ways we distinguish God, and one way that God is different from Jesus even though they are of the same substance. The Arians (of Arian Heresy fame) used to say that Jesus was a mere creature. They didn’t win that battle. That’s why we call them heretics. Most people don’t realise that at one time, though, there were more Arians than orthodox. If there had been a vote we’d all be Arians! History came down the other way, through, so…

As the Roman Empire grew they took on a lot of new Gods and new practices, so you can’t say that there were just 12 Roman Gods. There were 12 that everybody would know, three main ones, and lots of others that might be adopted when convenient or not even known about. People had their private Gods too. Nothing ever changes, does it? Eventually, the Roman Empire adopted Christianity.

It’s hard to say exactly when people started reciting the Shema. And, people being what they are, we just can’t know. As a declaration of faith in one God, though, it goes back a long way. Before Egypt!

I thought this was an interesting article on the grammar and history around the word Echad.


“…a compound or collective unity”…Most of the information in this section came from The Nature and Character of God (Bethany House, 1988) by W.A. Pratney.


John 12:28… God the Father calls himself “I”

John 17:4… God the Son calls himself “I”

Acts 13:2… God the Holy Spirit calls himself “I”

(From The Lion Handbook of Christian Belief (Lion, 1982) “The Trinity,” by Klass Runia)


Mark 1:11… God the Father calls God the Son “thou”

John 17:2… God the Son calls God the Father “thou”

John 14:26…Both God the Father and God the Son refer to God the Holy Spirit as “he”

(From The Lion Handbook of Christian Belief (Lion, 1982) “The Trinity,” by Klass Runia)


John 3:35… God the Father loves God the Son

John 14:31… God the Son loves God the Father

John 15:26… God the Holy Spirit testifies to God the Son

(From The Lion Handbook of Christian Belief (Lion, 1982) “The Trinity,” by Klass Runia)


Linda McMillan is writing from her favourite spot in Bangkok, Thailand. A free-range monotheist, not a Unitarian. Not a Modalist. Not an Arian. Not any of those heresies… Just doing the best I can.


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Tony Reed

I found this reflection on the Trinity embracing and in some sense comforting. I am still trying to digest your piece from last year.

Philip B. Spivey

The icon accompanying this reflection is by the 15th century Russian iconographer, Andrei Rublev. It is called “Trinity” and is currently on display at the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow.

It has been said about this icon that the Spirit is pointing to the open, fourth place at the table. There appears to be a small rectangular hole in the front of the table. Art historians conjecture that, at one time, it may have held a mirror attached with glue.

Are we we the fourth guest?

Linda McMillan

Wow… Fantastic comment. I love that! Thank you so much. I wish I’d done more research on the image. To be honest, it’s the very last thing I do and I usually just go right to Pixabay because it’s easy, but this insight about the mirror is just great.

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