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The Big Question

What (if anything) is at stake in the Trinity?

By Harold Wells

To many of our United Church people, the Trinity seems to be a kind of mathematical riddle. “Don’t ask me to believe that God is both one and three,” a friend of mine says. “It’s hard enough to believe in God at all!” We hear that this is an obscure old dogma invented in the fourth century to settle petty theological disputes. So what is at stake here? What would we stand to lose if we dispensed with the Trinity? I suggest that a great deal is at stake — essentially the whole distinctive character of Christian faith.

Perhaps we are more Trinitarian than we think. A New Creed, so widely beloved in the United Church, speaks of God the Creator, “who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh . . . , who works in us and others by the Spirit.” Our recent doctrinal statement, Song of Faith, also speaks of God as “one and triune: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Lest anyone imagine that God is two-thirds male, alternative wordings are offered, such as “Mother, Friend and Comforter.”

I suggest that the doctrine of God as Trinity is actually more profound and more radical than a simple unitary monotheism. For Christian faith, “God” is not merely the “Supreme Being” of the universe. “God” is not a theory or hypothesis to explain things, not some theistic “common sense.” Deeper than common sense, and astounding to human reason, “God” is the compassionate One whom we meet in the pages of the Bible. “God” is the One who is present and self-revealed in the human Jesus, in his whole life, death and resurrection. “God” is the mighty Creator, who lives within us, among us, and breathes as Spirit throughout the whole creation. What is distinctive about Christian faith is precisely this Trinitarian sense of the Holy One who is infinitely beyond us as Creator, yet universally present within as Spirit, and embodied (incarnate) in the human Jesus. All our Christian worship, our mission, our ethics, is grounded and centred in this triune God.

Did the doctrine really originate in the fourth century? We find the Trinitarian faith already in Paul’s 2 Corinthians 13:13, written in the AD (or Common Era) 50s: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” We find a Trinitarian pattern in the earliest Gospel, in the story of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-11) and in the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19. It was formally articulated in the fourth century by councils and creeds, but its roots go much deeper than that.

The root of the doctrine of the Trinity was faith in Jesus as Lord. The first Christians believed they had encountered God in Jesus, crucified and risen. In his words of wisdom and deeds of compassion and healing, they experienced God’s grace drawing near to them; in him they knew themselves forgiven; his resurrection broke the power of death, empowering them to live with new love and courage. Jesus did not merely bring a Word from God. He was himself the Word of God made flesh. They perceived that Jesus was one with God, and that God was one with Jesus in his true humanity. This was either the most shocking idolatry in the history of religion, or the most profound truth about God incarnate in human flesh. This faith in God, through Christ, in the Spirit, generated, very early on, a doctrine of the Trinity.

This is more than a dusty old orthodoxy. It is not surprising that the Trinity is important in some feminist and liberationist theologies. Because God dwells in the world and human beings by the Spirit, and is so profoundly engaged with the world in Jesus, God is disclosed, not as the all-controlling micro-manager of the universe, but as the self-limiting, “self-emptying” One (Philippians 2:7). Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” expresses most poignantly God’s utter identification with us even in our deepest despair. More than that: in the passionate relation of Jesus to his Abba, and to the Spirit, we glimpse an otherness, an eternal community of Love, within the unity of God.

We Christians have no monopoly on God. We know that all our words and doctrines fall short of God’s glory. Song of Faith confesses, “God is Holy Mystery, beyond full comprehension, above complete knowledge.” Yet, we confess that the triune God is not a remote “First Cause” of the universe, but the Holy One whom we can love and worship with our whole heart.

Rev. Harold Wells is professor emeritus in systematic theology at Emmanuel College in Toronto.

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