I don’t think I am alone in struggling with the doctrine of the Trinity. My youth group leaders used to refer to the Trinity as ‘the black hole of the Trinity’. And I certainly relate to the first of some 22 tweets by Ben Myers, lecturer in systematic theology at UTC, where he explains the Trinity. He says How to combat trinitarian heresies? Start by abolishing Trinity Sunday, that fateful day on which preachers think they have to explain it.
I am not going to try and explain the doctrine of the Trinity – if you want to try and understand it I can point you to some good books or indeed to Ben’s series of tweets. But what I will do is give you some background on the doctrine of the Trinity.
Firstly there is no mention of the Trinity in the bible. You will not find any proof texts of the Trinity. But within scripture there is a pervasive trinitarian pattern in the way that the writers of various books in the bible. This is particularly so in the New Testament. The witness of the NT is that the one God cannot be separated from God’s love for the world in Jesus and God’s ever renewing Spirit.
So we call God triune because this accords with the biblical witness and the experience of the church grounded in this witness. It’s a summary description, if you like, of God’s unfathomable love incarnate in Jesus the Christ, and experienced and celebrated in the community of faith.
The doctrine of Trinity is the always inadequate attempt to interpret this witness in images and concepts available to us in a particular era. It’s the churches effort to give coherent expression to God who is multifaceted, mystery and beyond our understanding.
The doctrine was developed over several centuries and not until the 4th century that it became a coherent doctrine – some 300 years after the death of Jesus. And importantly, it was developed in response to distortions of the faith of the time which limited or distorted God.
For example, subordinationism describes different ranks or orders of the diving. There is one God, creator, source of being – and 2 exalted creatures or inferior divinities – Jesus and the Spirit.
Another was modalism which argued that the names Father, Son and Spirit were mere masks or indicators of the true nature of God.
Or tritheism which argued that Father, Son and Spirit as 3 separate and independent deities.
So the Trinity was not about limiting God but expanding peoples understanding of God.
You might well ask What the Great Commission we read from Matt has to do with the Trinity?
Although it’s tempting to read Jesus use of the formula “Father and Son and Holy Spirit,” as the reason, it is not. We cannot read Trinitarian theology, agreed upon in the 4th century, backward into this first century Gospel.
What this passage does is give us a strong statement of the authority of the risen Jesus as one with God. The word “therefore” in “Go therefore and make disciples” suggests that the action of making disciples results from the previous verse. That previous verse is “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 20:18). Jesus’ instructions result from the authority the author of Matt claims Jesus possesses.
It is because of this, that it’s appropriate to reflect on this passage on Trinity Sunday. The risen Jesus, fully vested with divine authority, stands before his disciples with one final teaching. But this is not the first claim of divine authority – it’s been apparent from the beginning of the Gospel. Jesus healing powers testify to this authority over demons and sickness. He casts out demons by the Spirit of God. The power of God’s Spirit comes into the world through Jesus as he shows compassion to those who need him. As the Son of Man, Jesus already displays the divine authority to forgive sins. He heals a paralyzed man not only for the man’s sake but “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6). Because the power to forgive resides with God alone, the scribes think Jesus has committed blasphemy. But Matthew presents Jesus as the one who rightly claims this authority because he is the Son of Man.
As is always the case, we must try to hear this claim in its context. Jesus’ claim on humanity is universal. When Jesus says “all authority on earth is given to me,” he also claims Lordship over Caesar, the lord of the known world. Disciples will come from all nations, which must include the Empire, and Judaism. Also universal is submission to his whole teaching: all that Jesus has commanded.
Matthew’s aim was not to convey a fully developed Trinitarian theology but to spread the good news about Jesus. Part of that good news is that Jesus fully shares the authority of the Father and the Spirit. Jesus is a powerful healer and teacher, because the source of his power is the same power known throughout the stories of the Old Testament.
As well as holding us to an expanded view of God, the Trinity also helps us to understand something else – that God is community. Trinitarian theology is above all else a theology of relationship: God to us, we to God, we to each other. It affirms that the ‘essence’ of God is relational, other-ward, that God exists as diverse persons united in communion of freedom, love, and knowledge.
The Trinity provides a model for the ideal human community in which people are united by mutual love, work together in harmony, and ensure that the equality and dignity of each person is respected. In practice this means that each community is to be transformed by grace into a living, breathing representation of Trinity resulting in unity in our diversity, freedom and mutual solidarity. When we act in the name of the Trinity we will fight for justice and human rights, for a compassionate society, always reaching out toward others so that all are included in communities of mutual love and solidarity.
The Trinity is a model for how we are to be in this world – in relationship with each other in our diversity, relationships characterized by love and compassion. Precisely because we know that God is three-in-one, we cannot remain indifferent to any suffering, by any member of the human race, in any part of the world.
To be made in the image of the trinitarian God, is to be made in relationship. How are we to live and relate to others so as to be the most Godlike?
Finally, this gospel reading – the great commission – linked as it is with the Trinity is illuminating in conversation about how mission can and should be done. First and foremost, mission must be relational and demonstrate the self-giving love of God in community.
It means getting alongside people, developing relationships of trust rather than seeking to impose our own beliefs and culture onto them. It means living out our values rather than calling others to live to standards we do not. It means being a loving, hospitable and generous community of faith.
When we do this, we are being a trinitarian congregation! When we do this we reflect the triune God in our very life and so join with God and God with us.
Ben Myers, Lecturer in Theology, United Theological College, Sydney
Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life (Chicago: Harper One, 1993)