What is the Trinity?

Dear Maggie,

What is the Trinity?

Triply Tried

Dear Tried,

Me, me, ya don’t let an old saint off easy with this question!  The Trinity is one of those most mysterious of concepts and one many a Christian theologian has wrestled with from the beginnings of the faith until now.  Difficult as it may be to understand, I’ll try to shed a bit of light with this short article.

A good place to begin with our discussion is the first line from our Acts reading for this Sunday:
“Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55)

Right here we have all three members of the Trinity named: Jesus, God (the Father), and the Holy Spirit.  The New Testament talks about all three, but it is a bit fuzzy on the details.  Like many things in our faith, it was controversy and debate that finally helped sort out the borders of what most believe about the Trinity today.

Here are the basic facts that get us to this idea of the Trinity:
  1. Christianity was born from Judaism which held that there is one God and that that God is personal, responsive, and involved in the world in an intimate way. 
  2. From Mary Madeleine worshiping at the feet of the risen Christ to the earliest churches, Christians worshiped Jesus.  Since they believed the worship of anyone but God was idolatry, they clearly believed that Jesus was God.
  3. The Holy Spirit is clearly an avenue of God’s working in the world and in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus gives his disciples the essential formula for baptizing new believers “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Mathew 28:18-20). The Spirit is then in some way a part of God and not simply a messenger or agent like an angel.
None of these three facts get us to a robust understanding of the Trinity, but they give us the elements that later Christians would flesh out into our understanding of a triune God.  In other words, Christians encountered these three persons of God and then later began to sort out what all of this meant exactly.

It was the Christian priest Arius who got the ball rolling. He argued that Jesus wasn’t really God, but was a special kind of creature.  That ruffled the feathers of a few, including a tenacious and brilliant bishop named Athanasius who believed that this view didn’t represent the truth about Jesus.
Athanasius believed that Jesus was “fully God and fully man.”  Sound familiar?  That’s because the Nicene Creed we say each Sunday is the result of the big debate between Arius and Athanasius.  Athanasius won the contest through a mix of political conniving and brilliant argument.  He settled the idea that Jesus and the Father are both God. 

So what about the Spirit?  She remains an ambiguous part of the picture.  Some believed that the Spirit was an aspect of God that proceeded from the Father.  Others believed the Spirit was the bond of love that was exchanged between Father and Son.  We can’t go into all the details of the debate here, but I think we can say that the Spirit is an aspect of God that brings things together: Father and Son, Son and the Church. 

The Trinity is a rich concept that is difficult and yet also deeply meaningful.  It means essentially that God is a community bound by love.  Perhaps the best way to enter into our contemplation of the Trinity isn’t with words but instead with an image. 

There is a famous Icon representing the Trinity by the Russian iconographer, Andrei Rublev.  It depicts the three beings who visited Abraham, which many consider the three persons of the Trinity.  All three are gathered at the table and yet there is an open space for us, the viewers, to join the table. 

That is the key part of the theology of the Trinity—God as a community of love welcomes us!
I know you likely have many more questions about this mystery of faith.  I do too!  For now, however, I hope this helps ya just a bit and offers you a new way to pray into the community of God’s love.

Peace be with ya,