Today we continue our series on the questions that thinking people ask about the Bible and the Christian faith. One of the other great questions over which I’ve often had discussion with people – both in the church and outside the church – is the issue of God’s nature and personhood, which we call the Trinity.
What is the Trinity? As a child I learned and memorized the great creeds of the church – the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed – which affirm belief in one God in Three Persons – Father, Son, Holy Spirit. We’ve recited the creeds (statements of faith) often as we did earlier today.
But when it comes to discussing the Trinity, there seems to be a hesitancy and a tendency to throw up our hands in frustration. I mean, how does this work?
A lot of images have been used to try and illustrate the concept. St. Patrick used the shamrock or three-leaf clover to illustrate the Trinity to the Irish druids – three leaves but one plant. I’ve heard the example of water – it can be a liquid, solid, or gas but still be H2O. Another one is more personal – for example, I am one person who is simultaneously a father, a son, and a husband. You can probably think of others.
I’ve always believed in the Trinity as a reality – but it's not an easy reality to grasp. I’ve heard all kinds of arguments for and against the concept. Some have said that the Bible doesn’t use the word “trinity” in reference to God (which is true) and therefore we shouldn’t talk in those terms as they seem to imply that there’s more than one God (which the Bible firmly denies). Others look at the Scriptures, like the early New Testament language – such as the letters of Paul- and see very clear Trinitarian references there (which also seem to make sense). Our text today from Matthew would seem to make that very clear.
Ultimately, however, any discussion of the Trinity really boils down to what we believe about Jesus of Nazareth. When we ask, “What is the Trinity?” what we’re really asking is “Who is Jesus? Is Jesus human or divine or some combination of both.
Take a look back at the Nicene Creed and you’ll see that the bulk of the language in the creed has to do with the relationship with Jesus and God. We’ve recited this creed for centuries, but one of the things we have to realize is that this understanding – that Jesus and God are of the “same substance” – did not come easily to the ancient church. In fact, the debate over the personhood of Jesus became a violent one.
A great book on this period of Christian history is entitled, When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity in the Last Days of Rome. It’s written by Richard Rubenstein, who is a scholar with expertise in religious conflict. He looks at the political intrigue and power plays that took place in the Christian church after the emperor Constantine took over and made Christianity the state religion of the empire (a quick turnaround after years and years of persecution of the church). It seems that there were really two camps, two thought processes about Jesus during that time. On the one hand, you had the views of a bishop named Arius – who asserted that Christ was greater than a human being but less than God and, on the other end, the views of Athanasius, another bishop who contended that Jesus and God were one in the same. The debate was nasty, leading to open warfare in some parts of the empire. So deep was the theological divide that, says Rubenstein, one could not buy a loaf of bread in Constantinople without being asked whether you believed Jesus was God or not.
The Nicene Creed was an attempt at compromise (Constantine wasn’t concerned about the theology as much as having peace in the church). The word homoousios – one substance (one Being) became the linchpin in all of this. Homoousios seemed to be more the biblical view, as opposed to homoiousious, which suggested that Jesus was sort of like God, but not quite the same. The phrase “one iota of difference” comes from this debate. One letter changes everything. Eventually, Athanasius’s view won out (rightly, I would argue) and we have been interpreting it that way ever since, though I would also argue that Athanasius’s methods were not always Christ-like. That doesn't negate the idea, it just indicts what happens when we need to be right instead of compassionate.
Not that the debate has stopped, however. Recent scholarly debates go over the same territory. On the one hand you have groups like the Jesus Seminar who want to deconstruct the supposed mythology about Jesus and get at the supposed “real” historical Jesus who, they seem to be saying, was a Jewish mystic and sage but not at all divine. On the other end of the continuum are the more conservative scholars whose focus is on the divinity of Jesus and his saving power (sometimes over and against his apparent human nature). Still others frame the debate in terms of metaphysical issues – asking questions like, “When Jesus prayed, was he talking to himself? Why did he call God “Father”? etc.
Like the other issues we’ve been looking at in this series, we can see that these debates continue to rage along this line – A or B, human or divine, etc. I’ve read books and had discussions with people all along this continuum. People want to know where you are on this – which side. What’s the answer?
Ultimately, I think the answer is somewhere out here. Perhaps we need a new way of understanding Jesus, God, and the Trinity that we can all really get behind. After all, our beliefs really don’t mean anything unless we flesh them out and use them. I believe our creeds, doctrines, affirmations, and statements are helpful in that they tell us something about God in, as much as is possible, a cognitive way. They give us a place to start, flawed and confusing though they may be. I hold to them, say them, preach them, believe them.
But I’ve also come to believe that the real heart of the matter is not what we say we believe about God – that’s what I’d define as religion. Religion can be organized, systematized, synthesized, debated, debunked, affirmed or rejected. I’ve spent most of my life doing, debating, and dispensing religion.
These days I’m discovering that the real heart of faith, for me is found in relationship to God – that we understand concepts like the Trinity, the humanity and divinity of Christ, even the church not primarily as a system of belief to be studied, but as a relationship to be explored, experienced, and enjoyed. I think that’s where the Scripture takes us. Not bullet points, but a relationship.
John of Damascus was a seventh century Greek theologian who, I think, captured what this really means. In much of the western Christian world at that time, the dominant symbol for the Trinity was an equilateral triangle – very distinct, hard edges, differentiated with angles that can be measured – a technical view of God. In a sense, this image functioned as an organizational chart – the points of the triangle representing the three persons of God with the Father “on top” – an organizational chart that reflected the hierarchies of both the church and the empire.
But John of Damascus, who grew up in the eastern Christian world, described the Trinity with a completely different symbol – a circle…in fact, he used the word perichoresis to describe God (peri – round or circle, choros – dance). He saw the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit not as a hierarchical, hard-edged system but as a circle dance – a relationship wherein the three persons of God were in constant movement, intimate, equal, unified yet distinct, and in loving relationship. Notice that when people gather out in the Narthex to talk and share, they most often form a circle – not a triangle or a box or a lecture hall…it’s a way of expressing equality and openness – the pre-requisites for loving relationships. That’s the way that God works and we, being made in God’s image, do it naturally – relationally.
John of Damascus saw the nature of God as being first, foremost, and always relational – not only within God’s own personhood, but in relationship with God’s creation. It was natural, then, that God’s relational nature would find an outlet in engaging in another relationship – with us.
Here, at the intersection – the connecting point of God and humanity-is where I believe we find Jesus – fully divine and fully human for the sake of full relationship with both.
Still with me? OK, here we go. First, what do we mean when we say Jesus was “fully divine”? It can mean a lot of things – Jesus had a God consciousness, Jesus believed he was God or the second person of the Trinity, Jesus had a God complex (it has been interpreted in many ways).
But here’s what I think…I think that when we say that Jesus was fully divine, what we mean to say is that Jesus was, in an unprecedented way, fully in relationship with God – so full of God as to act as God acts, speak as God speaks, love as God loves. In a very real sense Jesus embodied the God of Israel, YHWH, “I am Who I am”. At various times in his ministry he acts and speaks for God, to God, and as God. He doesn’t “channel” God as some new agers would say – he embodied God because he was a full participant in the circle dance with the full nature of God. For him it wasn’t a matter of simply believing he was God (you could believe that and be wrong!) or wanting to be God – he characterized it always as being “one” with God (I and the Father are one!) – that’s a relational term.
Lots of people in the history of the world have claimed to be divine – the Caesars, various rulers and potentates, cult leaders, you name it – and in nearly every case they claimed divinity as a means of gaining more power. Jesus claimed quite the opposite – his mission, his divine relationship, his power was realized in giving his life away as a servant – thereby forever redefining what we mean when we say “God.”
That brings us to the other half of the equation – he was also “fully human” – the epitome of the best of humanity lived out in relationship with other humans. He lived, loved, forgave, challenged, taught, and died for and with humanity. In an unprecedented way, his relationship with God was lived out in relationship with others – and with everyone – the good, the bad, and the indifferent. Even many of those who don’t see Jesus as God in the way we Christians do, would likely admit that he is probably the greatest person who every lived. That’s something – fully human in the best sense of the term.
Jesus is fully divine because he was and is in full relationship with God. Jesus is fully human because he was and is in full relationship with us. In him the best of both natures come together.
Now, having said all that, I’ll have to admit that even this construct is incomplete. After all, how does one fully define a relationship? Think about the person you love best – how would you define your relationship? You could use words, symbols, actions, rituals – but ultimately, at the deepest level, the relationship goes beyond our ability to express it. It’s simply something we “know” in the deepest parts of ourselves.
I think the same is true when we talk about God. The creeds, the Bible, our discussions, our musings and wonderings can only take us so far. The only way we can truly experience God, the only way we can really know God, is by opening ourselves to the deep intimacy of relationship with God, with Christ, with the Holy Spirit.
To put it another way, if we want to understand God, we have accept God’s invitation to join the dance.
When Jesus engaged people during his ministry, his words were always invitations to join the dance. Notice that he didn’t say to those around him – study me, talk about me, think about me, analyze me. He never said anything like “construct a religion around me.”
What he always said was….Follow me. Follow my lead as we dance together…
That’s how we’ll know him, be more like him. That’s how we’ll know God more fully. And that’s how we ourselves will become more fully human.
You gotta join the dance. You need to join the circle.
Now, I’ve talked for awhile and I’m fully aware that the words aren’t adequate. I don’t expect them to be. But perhaps there’s another way to understand it and I want to share that with you today.
As I said earlier, the eastern Christian tradition is rich in symbolism. The eastern orthodox tradition uses art and icons more often than words to express the holy mystery of the Trinity. One of my favorite icons was painted by Andre Rublev, a Russian monk who lived in the 14th and 15 centuries There’s a lot of symbolism in this work, entitled “the Old Testament Trinity” – depicting the visit of what many scholars believe to be the three persons of the trinity to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre. Rublev painted this icon to depict the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in relationship to each other. The symbolism is rich if you look closely. For example, look at the hands. Henri Nouwen said that one way of looking at the icon is that the Father is on the left, making a hand sign that encourages the Son (in the middle) who has two fingers displayed, indicating his divine and human nature. The third figure, the Holy Spirit, points downward toward the rectangular hole in the front of the table, which represents the narrow path of faith to which we are directed. But the main feature I want you to focus on is this…notice the orientation of the icon…the three figures sit at a table, but the part of the table that is open is facing the viewer.
What’s it mean? There’s a place for you at the table – a place to join in with and engage the living God in relationship.
Rather than try to describe the Trinity, perhaps the best way we can learn it is to live into it, be in relationship to God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. And when we live into that relationship with God, maybe we’ll find our relationship with others transformed as well.
This icon also reminds us that God’s very nature is defined by relationship—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and that relationship is always reaching outward. The doctrine of the Trinity isn’t so much an idea as it is an invitation.
Will you join the dance?