The Trinity is one of the most difficult aspects of Christian theology yet at the same time arguably the most important. What we understand God to be like impacts how we understand what God does. Robert Letham has suggested that “In the West, the Trinity has in practice been relegated to such an extent that most Christians are little more than practical modalists.” In other words, in practical terms, the Trinity really has no impact on the way most Christians live and move within their faith.
How can this be?
Clearly, if theologians suggest that this a “fundamental aspect of the Christian vision of God” then surely this must have an impact on the way we worship, the way we engage in mission as well as our understanding of what it means to be a people of the Triune God. These are the things we will be focusing upon today. So, whilst we will make an attempt to describe the Trinity in ways that are understandable, really the question is “What difference does a belief in the Trinity make?”
Christianity was born out of Judaism. Jesus was a Jew, all of the disciples were Jews, many of the key first leaders and thinkers in the faith (e.g. Paul) were Jews. The Judaism of the first century was a monotheistic (belief in one God) faith and so it is natural that these early Christians were monotheistic as well. Indeed they understood their faith as a continuation of the worship they had always participated in, yet now with a new focal point – Jesus Christ. Jesus was worshipped by the disciples, he received this worship, and was even addressed as “God” (e.g. by Thomas in John 20:28). In addition to this, Christians were promised by Jesus and received at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit. Over the course of many years Christians were forced to seek to address the question;
Of course, over the course of 300-400 years there are many variations on this question, and a wide range of responses to it. Indeed, there are occasions when the difference between “orthodoxy” and “heresy” is just one letter (e.g. homoousios and homoiousios)! Mapping this out can be a difficult task, especially when most of the material that has lasted throughout the years is written by the “winners”. For example, critical debates occurred between Athanasius and Arius, yet most of the material we have from Arius is quoted by Athanasius himself. This is like trying to determine Labor Party policies from Tony Abbott’s speeches alone. As a result, whilst it may come across that opponents were vastly different in their theologies, more often they are only a hair’s breadth apart from one another.
Throughout all of this, and amongst all of the accusations of heresy, the banishments to exile, and the changes in political leadership that influenced much of these discussions, the church came up with language that helped to explain the mystery of the Trinity. God is understood as “one essence, three persons” (one “ousios/substantia”, three “hypostasis/persona”). In addition to this important language of common essence, but difference persons, is the shared equality between all three persons. We see the influence of all of this language in our third doctrine today:
At the time this language was current and meant something both at a philosophical level, but also to the person on the street. There is a famous quote from Gregory of Nyssa (335 – 394 A.D.) suggesting that these discussions were not just for bishops and priests. All Christians were interested.
The difficulty today, and why most Western Christians are really “practical modalists”, is that this language has lost some of its currency for today’s Christians. As a result, we seek to use metaphors and analogies that point in some way to a helpful understanding of this mystery. Some of these metaphors and analogies have included
- Eggs (shell, white, yolk)
- Water (ice, water, steam)
- Shamrock (three leaves found on one clover)
All analogies have their strengths and weaknesses, and at some point they will always fall down. As Augustine rightly stated:
However, the analogy that I have found particular helpful is the image of a dance involving three persons. This image draws upon language that early Christian theologians drew upon (from the world of choreography) in an attempt to explain the interrelatedness of the three persons of the Trinity. This concept “allows the individuality of the persons to be maintained, while insisting that each person shares in the life of the other two.” As a result, whenever we consider a work of one person of the Trinity we understand that all three persons are involved. In very simple terms, Jesus never acted alone. At the heart of this is relationship. God, within God’s very self, is relational. As such when we engage with him in relationship and are only able to do that through relationship and indeed when we are saved we are saved for relationship; with God, with others and with creation. This, I suggest, has a profound influence on how we live.
So, we return to the question for today, what difference does this belief make? Or in another way, so what? There are three areas of Christian living where this belief makes a significant difference to the way we live. Holiness, mission and worship.
Often we can conceive of holiness in purely moral terms; that is “doing right things”. Certainly there is a moral aspect to holiness, but this is a consequence of relationship with a holy God, not a means to attain or maintain that relationship. In other words, when we the Spirit unites us with Christ who “hides us in God” (Colossians 3:3) we begin to become “Godlike”. We a transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:17), and transformed into the likeness of Christ. This is both an event that occurs in time and a lifelong transformational process. In much the same way that a wedding is an event where a couple becomes husband and wife, but a marriage is where that relationship grows, transforms and develops.
A belief in the Trinity results in a relational understanding of holiness. This sees holiness as “love for God” and “love for neighbor” which will be evidence in loving relationships. This is why Jesus stated that others will look at us and know we are Christians by the way that we “love one another” (John 13:33-34). Indeed, a genuine loving concern for creation will also be evident in the way that we live, given that God “so loved the world” (here the word is cosmos, which is much broader than just the people who are in the world) that he gave his only Son (John 3:16). The Trinity and our understanding of the incarnation (the second person of the Trinity uniting with creation in an inseparable and eternal bond) is foundational and influential here.
Mission has, in many cases, been reduced to “the things we do for God”. We share the gospel, we engage in ministry, we feed the poor and clothe the hungry, for God. However, this Trinitarian understanding of who God is reveals a God who is both the “sender” and the “sent”. We’ve already referred to God giving his Son because of his love for the world (John 3:16). There God the Father is the “sender”, and Jesus is the “sent”. Jesus also interpreted his task as one who had been “sent” (Luke 4:43). We also see Jesus “sending” the Holy Spirit to his disciples (Luke 24:49). In this case Jesus is the “sender” and the Holy Spirit the “sent”. As an extension of this missional activity within the Trinity, Christian disciples are also “sent”, and empowered for the task by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). As a result we shouldn’t see mission so much as “the things we do for God” as “the things we do with God”. God is missional and we see this in the relationships we observe in the Trinity. We just have the privilege of being invited to join in!
In a very similar way to “mission”, worship also tends to be conceived of in terms that are unidirectional; from us to God. However, a belief in the Trinity reveals that worship is something that is taking place in between the persons of the Trinity. We observe the Father glorifying the Son and the Son glorifying the Father (John 17:1). The resurrection of Jesus is also interpreted as God exalting Jesus to the highest place, and giving him the name that is above every name (Phil 2:10-11). These are all expressions of worship between the persons of the Trinity. Similarly, Jesus is “led by the Spirit” (Luke 4:1). This action of Jesus towards the Spirit is an act of devotion from one person of the Trinity to another. Indeed the instruction to baptize new disciples “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) is an invitation to enter into the very life of the Trinity through an act if worship. As a result, when we participate in worship (both corporately and individually) we enter into, and continue on in, the relational life of the Trinity. As the Father glorifies the Son, and the Son glorifies the Father, so too we, by the Spirit, glorify all three persons.
In can be a result of this that our prayers often interchange the names of the persons of the Trinity. We can find ourselves starting by praying to “God”, and then somehow find ourselves shifting attention to the “Lord Jesus” and ending up calling upon the “Holy Spirit”. Whilst it is probably better to be consistent (at least in a corporate setting), I would suggest that this is just a symptom of the “dance” of the Trinity. Each person of the Trinity seeks to glorify the others and so when we focus our prayerful attention on one it is soon turned by that person onto another.
To emphasise this final point, and indeed draw all three together, we quote here from Robert Letham at length.
From this it follows that prayer is distinctively Trinitarian. The Christian faith exists in an atmosphere saturated by the Trinity. At its most basic level, each and every Christian believer experiences in an unarticulated form communion with the Holy Trinity. It is the Holy Spirit who creates a desire to pray and worship God. It is he who brings us to faith and sustains us in a life of faithful obedience. In turn, our access to the Father is exclusively through the Son, Jesus Christ. No one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6). Now that he has offered the one perfect sacrifice for sins for all time, we have access to the holy place, the presence of God (Heb. 10:19-20), and so can approach with confidence the throne of grace, knowing that our great high priest is there to intercede for us, he who has experienced to the full the struggles of human life in a fallen world and so can sympathize with us in our weakness (Heb. 4:14ff.). Indeed, Jesus introduces us to the same relation he has with the Father. He is the Son by nature; we are children by grace. We now call on God as “our Father.” Moreover, the Spirit brings us into his own intercession of us (Rom. 8:26-27). He thus eliminates the distance between us and God, creating in us the same relation he has with the Father and the Son. Prayer and worship are thus an exploration of the character of the Holy Trinity. It is urgent to ensure that our theology is in line with this most basic Christian experience. For the lack of it, the faithful are misled and their ability to articulate and understand in measure what they tacitly believe and confess is stunted.
 Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2004), 407.
 Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, Fifth ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 234.
 Oratio de deitate Filii et Spiritus Sancti, quoted in “Trinity 1: What Do We Do with All These Guys?” Maria F. Drews, August 2010. http://mariadrews.wordpress.com/2010/08/08/trinity-1-what-do-we-do-with-all-these-guys/
 McGrath, Christian Theology, 241.
 Letham, Holy Trinity, 414-15. Emphasis added.