as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”
When I first joined the small group that sings Morning Prayer each day here in the church, I noticed that at the end of the psalms we did not add the traditional “Gloria Patri”: Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. When I asked out of curiosity why that was the case, I was told: “Because when the psalms were written, the Trinity hadn’t been invented yet.”
Now that’s a quintessentially St. Michael’s sort of answer: respectful, but at the same time also a bit skeptical, and therefore inviting conversation. (That’s one of the great things about this parish: we give one another no end of things to talk about!)
It is true, of course, that nowhere do the Hebrew scriptures contain any direct reference to the Trinity; and even in the New Testament, the references tend to be somewhat oblique. The idea that God is both one and three, and three in one, is in fact largely the product of the first three or four centuries of Christian theology, as the early church tried to digest the full meaning of who Jesus was and what he did. So yes, in one sense it’s true that at the time of the psalms’ composition, “the Trinity hadn’t been invented yet.”
Yet today’s observance of a Sunday dedicated to celebrating the Holy Trinity begs for some further reflection upon it, however time-bound and remote the idea may at first seem to us.
Still, that idea of the Trinity having been “invented” kind of hangs in the air, doesn’t it, casting a bit of a shadow on the whole idea? Is it really something that is primarily the product of the dominant neo-Platonism of the early church—and an idea that is therefore relatively unimportant to us now?
Personally, I think not. However historically complex its genesis, the Trinity serves an important role in a Christian understanding not just of God, but of creation as well.
So to try to get our minds around that idea, let me propose the following proposition as a rule for theological reflection that might help us get started: any idea of God that is worth its salt should over time be able to yield fresh insights, beyond the limitations of the era and cultural context in which it was first expressed. In short, there should be the possibility of “fresh conclusions from orthodox sources.”1 So, the question for us is whether the Trinity holds up to that test?
When the church was first formulating a fleshed-out idea of the Trinity, the greatest challenge was to find a language for articulating how it could be that the transcendent being of the creator of all things, could also be present in the immanent person of a first-century Jew named Jesus. Hence, the theology of the period is a dizzying array of reflections on the characteristics of being, and personhood, and the definition of nature. And many of the resulting terms--ousios, and homoousios, and perichoresis, and on and one—can seem very remote from our concerns today.
But the underlying intent of describing God as a trinity of persons was nevertheless to understand the essential relationality of God as it is grounded in love—and that is something that continues to have immediate meaning for us. When we understand God as a community of persons that is bound together by the giving and sharing of love, then we also understand ourselves as the product of the overflowing of that love into the creative activity of God, like a pot boiling over because it can just no longer contain the energy inside it. (And come to think of it, isn’t it interesting that our own procreative activity is described as “making love,” a perhaps unrecognized reference to God’s own unrestrained love which likewise pours itself out in the creation of children to love?)
We are, in other words, the product of love, and furthermore, we were created to live in response to that love—just as a child naturally responds in love to his or her parents. This centrality of love in grasping God’s relationship to us is especially emphasized in the tradition of John’s gospel and epistles. As he writes: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God” (I John 4:7).
So because the Christian idea of God is of a communal trinity of persons bound together by love, our idea of God is not of a distant, abstract being who is unrelated and uninvolved in human affairs. Rather, our god is a god whose love makes God to be deeply embedded in the very marrow of our lives. God is not passive, but passionate; God is not unknowable, but defined by relationship; God is not abstract being, but the active power of a creative, generative love. And so likewise, we also understand the fundamental nature of the reality that was created by this God, to be one of relationship. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “None of us lives for oneself; and no one dies for oneself; … whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom 14:7-8).
The Trinity’s model of relationship, then, becomes the light in which we see and understand everything else. You might think of it this way: like the brilliant sun that floods the New Mexico landscape around us with an inexpressibly beautiful light, the Trinity of relationship that is God is the source of the illumination by which we see and comprehend the world, and it is the light by which we build the relationships we instinctively seek with God and with one another. Without it, all would be dark and obscure, but in its light, all is given meaning and purpose.
And that perspective is one that has immediate relevance for us, because as any number of recent observers have pointed out, we as a society are experiencing a breakdown of patterns of relationship. (See for instance David Brooks’ column in Friday’s New York Times on “The Fragmented Society.”) The question of how we are to restore relationship with one another, therefore, and overcome the increasing individuation and atomization of our society, is indeed of urgent importance. And from a Christian point of view, it is essentially a Trinitarian issue.
Because to affirm the Holy Trinity, is to affirm that our fundamental identity as human beings is one of relationship: relationship with God, relationship with one another, relationship with the created world, relationship with ourselves. It is the very antithesis of the polarization, isolation, nationalism, and nativism that we face as a nation.
It was St. Augustine who said that the world is filled with traces—or vestiges—of the Trinity. “The knowledge of God,” he wrote, “is to be sought by love, which God is said to be in the Scriptures; and in this love is also pointed out the existence of some trace of a trinity.”2 Those traces are in every relationship that we have, in every experience of love that we enjoy, in every longing for companionship that we express, in every spiritual intuition that we discern. They are the building blocks of the relationality by which both church and society live. And so in any relationship in which we engage, we are intuitively responding to and bearing witness to the Trinitarian nature of God and reality—implying (if not always actually saying),
“Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”
© Joseph Britton, 2016
1 A phrase that has been applied to the theological method of former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
2 Augustine, De Trinitate, Book VIII, Preface