For many christian churches, the Trinity is a big deal. It even gets its own Sunday in some churches, the Sunday after Pentecost. That’s unusual because most church festivals or observances commemorate a specific event or person and the Trinity is neither of those. Then there’s all the churches named Trinity, Holy Trinity or, my personal favourite, The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Indivisible Trinity (better known as Gloucester Cathedral in England).
But what is it, exactly?
Simply put, it’s the doctrine that describes God as being one God in three persons, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The three persons are distinct, yet are one in nature or essence. The word Trinity is essentially “tri” (three) and “unity” (one, together). Well, there you go.
Of course, there is no “simply put.” The Trinity is considered a “mystery” of the faith because that paragraph above is just the tip of the iceberg. How can three be one and one three? Isn’t there just one God? What’s this mean about the relationship of the three to each other and to us? And what about our relationship with the one, especially when “you will have no other gods before me?” And all that is just where it started.
The word “trinity” isn’t in the bible. It wasn’t even used until the third century. We made it up. That’s why it’s “doctrine,” a teaching of the church. See, by the beginning of the second century, the budding church had a problem: inheritors of the belief that there is one God, we now had stories about Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Jesus was Immanuel (God with us), the “Word made flesh,” the Son of God and yet more than even that. And the Spirit was from the beginning, the wisdom, the power of God at work. How can God be in these, too, if God is one? The word might not have been in the Bible, but the concept certainly seemed to be.
And yet, it can’t be fully explained. That’s why it’s a “mystery.” Trying to define God is limiting, to say the least, especially since our relationship with God is both personal and communal (i.e. there’s even more relationships). That’s a lot of unique and personal understanding to contend with and a lot of different contexts to take into consideration.
And yet – again – that’s precisely what the early church attempted to do with The Trinity. The doctrine didn’t come about easily. There were many challenges and conflicts over how the concept was to be defined, producing more of a “what it’s not” understanding until a couple of creedal statements settled it. And that was really only by force. In other words, it became an issue that helped define the new institution and give it a sense of uniformity, but at a price. We built an institution on the foundation of Jesus but it had walls that excluded people. Walls that just got thicker and taller as time went on. And we stuck with it. Pretty soon the walls become more important than the foundation and the institution – the structure that’s supposed to help us understand our faith – becomes more important than what we thought we believed.
That’s not Jesus. At least, not the Jesus who said others will know you are followers of me by your love (John 13:35). I think Jesus invited questions and thought and wonder. I think Jesus opened his arms to those who felt excluded, marginalized and turned away.
I think it’s also counter to the real value of the idea of Trinity, not as a way to define God (as if that were possible), but as a way to engage what it means to be in relationship and to open the door on wonder.
I believe that there is one God and we all come to that God in different ways. Not just through different faith traditions, but even within those faith traditions. Some people find the power of the Spirit to be their cornerstone, for example. Witness all of the people these days who describe themselves as “spiritual” but not belonging to any tradition or church. Or the “pentecostal” tradition that emphasizes the power of the Spirit at work in the world. Or followers of Jesus, from those who follow the example of Jesus’ life to those who look more to the atoning power of Jesus death or stress the need to receive “Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour.” Or those who look primarily to God as the creator, the power of the universe.
See, I think that we all connect with God in these many ways and we each, perhaps, have a relationship that is most meaningful to us, or at least more meaningful in some contexts.
We should also remember that each of these doesn’t stand alone. In wondering at the immensity of the one God, we can meet the life of Jesus, “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14), and the Holy Spirit that inspired and empowered the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2). As they are bound together, so are we: we are many persons, yet one in love.