The Mystery Of The Life Of God
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday. It seems odd that we’d only set aside one Sunday a year to tackle the weird idea that the Christian God is One God, yet Three distinct Persons, equal in power, glory, and worthy of praise. It doesn’t help that the word “Person” in the explanation of the Trinity is part of a philosophical vocabulary as dead as the Austrian Empire. That there are only a couple oblique references in the Bible that might possibly be references to the Trinity certainly adds to the difficulty. That’s why, say, Emil Brunner – another 20th Swiss theologian not quite as well known as his co-national from Basel – didn’t think faith in the Trinity was a necessary part of the Christian life. We should confess the Trinitarian life of God, said Brunner, but only as symbolic of a mystery we neither understand nor impacts our life.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the great Reformed theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher decided to tack on a couple words about the Trinity at the end of his Glaubenslehre, basically saying it was this weird thing, kind of offensive to reason, but also summarized the Christian confession without really having any content. He insisted churches continue to use Trinitarian language; he also shrugged his shoulders at the idea of confession of the Trinitarian life of God. Since the whole thing about the Trinity was that it was nearly impossible to understand, and there were other, reasonable and rational, ways of understanding the God revealed in Jesus Christ, why worry about this vestige from the late Roman Empire?
I think most Christians, including most clergy, are closet Unitarians. The whole idea of the Trinity is difficult to grasp. It is so bound up in this weird amalgam of NeoPlatonic and Aristotelean philosophy, at least in the words of the Nicene Creed, that when we read that particular confession, even if we do so sincerely, most of us don’t have any idea what we’re confessing. That whole “of one substance with the Father” bit; what the heck is that all about? And don’t even get me started on the procession of the Holy Spirit; that split the Roman Catholic and Eastern Rite churches a thousand years ago.
Yet I would nevertheless insist that confession of our belief in the Trinitarian Life of our God is the distinctive mark of the Christian faith. When people ask, “Which God do you believe in?” the answer is: “The God who is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Three-in-One, distinct yet never separated, bound together in Love and action toward one another first, that love overflowing to all creation.”
How can I be so confident in this? Our faith rests not upon airy notions of some “sky fairy” (one of my favorite attempted insults that still pops up on the Internet), but upon the fact that this God, this Trinity of Persons has chosen to reveal to Creation first and foremost through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How we understand everything else: the testimony to revelation contained in Scriptures, including Creation; the history of the Covenant between this God and Israel; the life of the early church recorded in Acts and the Epistles; how we are grasped by these realities flows from the faith we confess in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. And that faith is best summarized by our confession of faith in the Trinitarian life of God, the Father who loved the Son through the Holy Spirit; the Son, the Light of Creation (according to the prologue to the Fourth Gospel), present with the Father, who created through the Love of the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit, the breath of God that calmed the primordial chaos at Creation, and through whom and with the Son brought forth light and life in love that is Who the Holy Spirit is.
It was St. Augustine who suggested that the Holy Spirit was the Divine Love that bound the Father and Son together, eternally. It is that love that is expressed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son, who praises the Father for the works done in and through him, with love that is the Holy Spirit. Faith in the Trinity makes the testimony to revelation contained in Scripture hold together as the single action of a loving God. Faith in the Holy Trinity is faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and will raise us to glory when Creation is redeemed to be the place that exists solely to give praise to God. To say that confession of faith in the Trinity makes no difference for our faith is, in a sense, to deny that our faith is coherent. It is a mystery, to be sure; it is difficult to grasp. The nice thing, however, is that we Christians are grasped by the Trinity, through the love that is the Holy Spirit, in the name of the Son, for the sake of the Father, who loves us so prodigally that the Three Persons were willing to take death in to the eternal life of the God-head in order to destroy its power over fallen Creation.
To say that confession of faith in the Trinity makes no difference to our life of faith is to miss the heart of the Trinitarian mystery – an overflowing, overabundant Love that could not rest confident in itself, but sought to share such a glorious love through the Creation of an Other than the eternally loving Persons of the Godhead. That’s why there are cows and spiders and exploding galaxies and the Indian Ocean and the guy across the street who always seems to work harder on his lawn than you do. That is why we love others, even the show-off across the street. That is why our life as Christians is one of Love, toward God and neighbor. We are, at our core and in a way that is more real than can be explained, creations of Love, for Love, to Love. Denial of the Trinity, despite its complexity and strangeness, is denial of the Life of the God who created us, who calls us, and will redeem all Creation so that it does nothing more than praise God.
The Trinity is more than this weird idea that took hundreds of years to figure out. It is more than odd philosophical ideas that really make no more sense to us contemporaries. Confession of the Trinity is confession that our God, the God in which we claim faith as Christians, is this God, the God who created in love, who maintains and sustains in love, who saves and redeems because of love. These actions only make sense when we realize that this is how the Christian God has chosen to reveal who this God is. The Trinitarian actions of our God reveal who this God is: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the source of our life, our faith, our hope, and our love.