The Trinity (Heresy optional)

Creed_icon_(Russia,_17_c.)_wikiHappy Trinity Sunday, when we sing one of my all-time favorite hymns, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” (aka “I bind unto myself today”), albeit too often without all the verses.

The Trinity is one of those hard-to-explain, much-dreaded-by-preachers, oft-handed-to-the-person-on-the-bottom-of-the-totem-pole subjects for Sunday sermonizers.

This could have something to do with the fact that the Trinity is extremely difficult to explain. As the Donall and Conall video “St Patrick’s Bad Analogies” proves, even St. Patrick fell into heresy in the attempt.

I’m comfortable with the idea of the Trinity. I don’t mean to say that I could explain it theologically without (almost certainly) lapsing into egregious heresy, but I do think that it’s the only logical way to explain the different faces and facets and characteristics that God presents to the world, without either going all polytheistic and full-bore heretical or denying that Jesus is a part of the Godhead.

I’m comfortable with the concept of the Spirit, of Wisdom, demonstrating the feminine side of the Godhead, a counterpoint to the oft-cranky God the Father, so swift to smite in the Hebrew Bible. I’m comfortable with Jesus, our brother, our friend, the approachable God in man made manifest. I’m quite comfortable with offering prayers to all three Persons of the Trinity.

With the three Persons of the Trinity, to pray without ceasing becomes as seamless as shifting gears on an old Toyota. The Spirit guides us into truth, and we pray (if we have any sense at all) for wisdom. Jesus joins us on the road, a companion and helper. God the Creator is all around us. I don’t worry too much about the specific address. I just offer my prayer to God, and know that it is heard.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 The Nicene Creed explains it for us; so, in much greater detail, does the Athanasian Creed.

Sermon notes: on the Trinity

Preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, May 30, 2010

I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity; by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three.

Almost every Sunday, we stand and say together the words of either the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed: We believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We believe, in other words, in the Trinity.

Just what are we saying, and why? And what, exactly, is the Trinity?

The first of those questions is easy: We’re affirming our faith in the most basic tenets of Christian faith and belief, of who and what God is.

To understand why creeds are necessary, we have to look at the early years of Christianity, when different people had a lot different understandings of the nature of Jesus and of the Godhead. The leaders of the Church composed the Creeds in order to make their understandings clear.

We’ll get to the second part in a minute.

The Apostles’ Creed wasn’t written by the apostles, but it is the older of the two; it probably dates from about the year 180. The Nicene Creed – longer and more detailed – followed in 325. It was ordered up by the Emperor Constantine in an attempt to bring some peace and agreement out of a welter of doctrinal disagreements.

Well, good luck with that one; disagreements you have with you always. The discussion at Nicea was so fierce that the Bishop of Myra – better known today as St. Nicholas – actually slugged a controversial priest named Arius. Say what you will about General Convention, but it rarely descends to fisticuffs.

Each of the Creeds handles the other essential matters of the faith in just four or five lines: that we believe in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church, in one baptism for the remission of sins, in the resurrection of the dead, and in the life of the world to come.

Both Creeds deal extensively with one key doctrine: that of the Trinity, the belief that God is three persons, yet One.

How extensively? I’m used to dealing with word counts in my daily work, and I think the word counts in the Creeds are significant, so please bear with me. The Apostles’ Creed is 108 words long in English; all but 22 of them deal with the nature of God. The Nicene Creed is more than twice as long, at 226 words; all but 35 of those expound the doctrine of the Trinity.

In some churches this morning, the priest and people will recite the Athanasian Creed. It was probably written in the late 5th or early 6th century as a reaction against the teachings of Arius, he whom Nicholas smacked upside the head. It is 458 repetitive words, and it’s all about the Trinity – and what will happen to those who don’t believe in it.

The Athanasian Creed may be found in the back of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, filed under “Historical Documents” on page 864. It’s in very small type, like the fine print in a contract. That’s appropriate, because it’s a very legalistic document. And unlike the other two creeds to which our Church subscribes, the Athanasian doesn’t merely affirm articles of belief; it promises dire consequences to those who not believe.

So what are we saying that we believe?

The Trinity is not the easiest doctrine to understand, which might just be one reason the Athanasian Creed is so explicit and detailed. It states that there is one God, but in three persons. God is the Creator of all, the Father; God is the Word made flesh, the Son; and God is Wisdom and Love, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

St. Patrick, whose great statement of faith “I bind unto myself today” is one of the high points of the Hymnal, famously explained the concept of the Trinity by holding up a shamrock, a plant with three distinct leaves that is still of one substance.

Others have found other analogies: When you combine two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen, what results is always of the same substance, whether it is manifested as flowing water, frozen ice, or water vapor. A human being is still one individual – the same individual, the same essence – whether perceived in a role as child, or parent, or spouse.

While the word “Trinity” is not actually spelled out in the Bible, arriving at the concept does not require a huge leap: the New Testament is shot through with references to the three Persons of God. In one of its oldest sections, 2nd Corinthians, Paul writes, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

Matthew makes a similar reference: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” And in today’s gospel reading, from John, Jesus, the Son,  speaks of both the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Most of all, the Trinity is the only logical way to reconcile the essential Jewish understanding of God: “Sh’ma, Yisroel, Adonoi elohenu, Adonoi echod” – “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” – with our understanding that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are God as much as is the Father.

It’s how we keep our monotheism intact while acknowledging that God has multiple aspects. The human mind cannot fully comprehend the Creator who conceived and made the unspeakable vastness of the universe, but we can understand that God cares for us, loves us all enough to dwell as one of us, and to give us comfort in our confusion and distress.

We cannot comprehend infinity, but we can comprehend love. The doctrine of the Trinity gives us the means to understand some of the ways in which God expresses eternal love for us.

Lord God, we thank you for our creation, for our redemption, and for the comfort you give us when we pray. Amen.

Sarah Bryan Miller

The One True Religion

We have friends who are Jehovah’s Witnesses; they’re a delightful family who commend their faith by their lives. The father, Tom, is a senior and very knowledgeable elder, one of my husband’s major informants when he was working on an academic study of JW history.

As part of his research, my husband suggested he should do a Bible study with Tom, making it clear it was strictly for academic purposes, to get an insider’s view of how the Witnesses approach scripture. Somehow I got roped in, too.

Unfortunately Tom really enjoyed these sessions,  and I think began to hope that we were going to be converted. They went on and on, and they were not interesting – the correct answers were already supplied, as Jehovah’s Organization knows exactly what the Bible means and doesn’t want you to get it wrong.

But the end came quite suddenly one day when Tom got on to the subject of the Trinity and what nonsense it was, and I finally had to abandon my research-assistant persona and argue for my beliefs. It didn’t blow my husband’s research sky-high, or even do any lasting damage to our friendship, but Tom hasn’t forgotten it. A couple of weeks ago when he visited us he told me cheerfully that I’d regret my belief in God as Trinity when Armageddon came.

Now this has turned into my challenge for Lent. What do you do when you have to deal with people who just know that they’re right and you’re wrong? I’m very tempted to tell Tom, as nicely as I can, that though I respect his faith I believe that his interpretation of the Bible is based on entirely false premises.

But there’s not much point in doing that, except for my own satisfaction, because it will mean nothing to him; he believes he’s one of the only group which has The Truth, and all the rest of us – Christians, Jews, Buddhists, you name it – are all trapped in False Religion and deeply disapproved of by Jehovah.

Of course it isn’t just JWs. There are plenty of other religious groups who are equally sure that they’re right and so everyone else is necessarily wrong (and probably headed for a very nasty fate). Unlike them, I don’t think that the God who went to such lengths to save us from the consequences of our sin is that picky.

Can I learn to look, as God does, past the narrow views and rigid assumptions of some of the people who cross my path and see and love the image of their Creator in them? That should give me plenty of work to do this Lent, and beyond.

– mzw