The Trinity of Theology and Worship
by Aurelia T. Fule
This presentation was given at "Sisters In Santa Fe," a conference sponsored by the National Association of Presbyterian Clergywomen and the Women*s Ministries Program Area, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), September 21-24, 2000 at Plaza Resolana en Santa Fe.
The Dr. Fule is now retired and living in Santa Fe; prior to her retirement she served in the Office of Theology and Worship of the General Assembly.
Many of us are familiar with Professor Samuel Terrien's The Elusive Presence. Listen to the opening sentence:
The reality of the presence of God stands at the center of the biblical faith. This presence, however, is always elusive. "Verily, verily, thou art a God that hideth thyself." The Deity of the Hebrew-Christian Scriptures escapes man’s grasp and manipulation, but man is aware of the presence of that Deity in such a powerful way that he finds through it a purpose in the universe. . . . (p. xxvii)
As usual, we start with the Scripture. Think of your picture of God. As you read the Older Testament, what do you learn about God? That God is far and near, almighty and friendly, transcendent and immanent.
Gen. 1:1-3 — God and God’s Spirit: God speaks and by God’s word the world is created.
Gen. 3:8 — Yahweh God walking in the cool of the day called to the man, "where are you?"
Ex. 14.11— God opens the Red Sea for the Israelites to cross
Gen. 18:25 — With this same God Abraham bargains over Sodom and Gomorrah "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"
Nah. 1:3 — "Yahweh is slow to anger and of great might. His way is in the whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet."
Ps. 30:9 — The Psalmists pour out their pain and anger, reasoning not unlike Abraham: "Shall the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?" i.e., it is in your interest to keep me alive, so keep me!
Transcendent and immanent, almighty and at hand.
Think of the ministry of Jesus and his teaching, healing, forgiving, feeding. Time and again we read: "he had compassion on them." Think of the Sermon on the Mount, of the parables. Recall his reading the scroll of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,... he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor ... to proclaim release to the captives... recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the . .. year of the Lord. (Lk. 4:18-19)
Think of the last supper, "this is my body, broken for you;" think of his arrest and trial, his truly broken body; his meeting Mary at the tomb, breaking bread at Emmaus — "their eyes were opened and they recognized him."
Think of the Spirit, the most elusive divine presence: already present at creation, later bringing God’s message to the prophets. How shall a virgin bear a child? "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you." (Lk. 1:35) And others, too: Elizabeth (v.41), Zechariah (v.67) and Simeon (2:25) are filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism and drives him "into the wilderness" to be tempted. The Gospels record the words and works of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles tells the acts of the Holy Spirit creating and sustaining the church. On the simplest level we note all these things about the Trinity in Scripture
Now listen to the Trinitarian Creed par excellence. It is attributed to Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, but it is written later (428 is the suggested date) to counter a position held by the Nestorians. The original text is in Latin. At the Reformation the Lutheran and Anglican communities retained the creed; no other Protestant church has. Until recently, it was used only in the West, but in the last three centuries the Russian Orthodox Church service books include it, and so does the Greek liturgical book — both without the Filioque clause.
At the Lutheran-Reformed Dialogue IV, it was suggested by a Lutheran member that the Reformed Churches add this creed to their respective books of confession. No affirmative response was forthcoming. Listen to the creed:
Whosoever will be saved: before all things
it is necessary that he hold the Catholick [sic] Faith.
Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled:
without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the Catholick [sic] Faith is this:
That we worship one God in Trinity,
and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the Persons:
nor dividing the Substance.
For there is one Person of the Father,
another of the Son;
and another of the Holy Ghost.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son
and of the Holy Ghost, is all one:
the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son.
and such is the Holy Ghost.
The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate:
and the Holy Ghost uncreate.
The Father incomprehensible,
the Son incomprehensible,
and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal:
and the Holy Ghost eternal.
— and so on.
What happened? First, the cultural scene is no longer Jerusalem; it has moved to Greece and then to Rome, and changes have taken place accordingly. To convert educated Gentiles their mind-set had to be considered. Secondly, a variety of heresies had to be countered. Thirdly, the Emperor Constantine’s offer of State support could not be refused.
Teaching in the Early Church
Hermas, the Didache, Barnabas, Clement of Alexandria all taught one God, who is Creator/Father, omnipotent, universally sovereign.
In the 2nd and 3rd centuries teaching is quite clear
- on the identity of the Christian God with the Creator God of the Jewish Scriptures;
- the true humanity, death and resurrection of Jesus, Son of God;
- the reality of the Holy Spirit who spoke through the prophets and
through them foretold Jesus’ coming and who guides the believer.
This is also the period of the Apologists, so called because they made a reasoned defense and recommendation of their faith to outsiders. They sought to defend the existence and eternity of God and to show that Christians had a more complete understanding of God’s nature than the Greeks or the Jews.
Aristides of Athens wrote his apology to the Emperor Hadrian (117-38) or to Antoninus Pius (138-61) and demonstrated God’s existence by Aristotle’s argument from motion. God is Sovereign and Lord, created all; God has no form, no limits and no gender.
Justin Martyr teaches that God is everlasting without a name, changeless, impassible (opening a debate not yet closed), agennetos, ungenerate, the cause of existence. Other apologists stressed creation ex nihilo, from nothing.
This is not the language of Scripture, but the language of philosophy. The cultural shift from Jerusalem to the West already begins in The New Testament. The picture of Jesus in the Gospels differs from that in the Pauline letters because the audience is very different. The two sections of Acts, the Petrine and the Pauline, present this same difference. Whoever believes that there is one way of presenting the Gospel has not yet truly read the New Testament.
When Constantine offered that the persecuting state become the supporting state, he also required a unified church: the Church needs to know what it says, and it needs to enforce that teaching. Otherwise, it will fracture the unity of the various Empire communities, instead of cementing that unity.
From its beginning, the Church had adopted, abandoned, readopted, expanded and contracted various teachings concerning the nature of God and of Christ. In the third century the major division in the Church concerned Christ, but it had implications for Trinitarian understanding. To resolve this and other disputes, Constantine called the first ecumenical council of the Church, the Council of Nicea, in 325. The Council finally agreed that there are no degrees of divinity. If Christ be God, as they believed and confessed, he is God in the same sense as the Father. He is consubstantial with the Father. There is equality within the Godhead.
From the beginning, the Church preached one God against the polytheistic cults of Greece and Rome, while its faith and worship was given to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. How to handle the contradiction? How to speak of one God in Three? Some started with the axiom of divine unity, but soon that came to be regarded as heresy. One God is revealed in three temporal forms of activity. "For us" God is three, as we learn to know God in time. But God in the divine self is eternally one. (Sabellianism)
Others would preserve the unitary divine rule by subordinating the Son to the Father and the Holy Spirit to the Son, and maintain the eternal distinction of the three. In Arius’ teaching not only the status, but the essence (ousia) is different. Absolute Godhead belongs to the Father/creator. Son and Spirit are creatures. (Arianism)
The Church had to sort out in a different (i.e, non-Jewish) culture and thought form what constituted the apostolic tradition. Between Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381), in half a century of struggle, the Church strained to arrive at fundamentals of a Trinitarian doctrine.
- Together with the Father, Son and Spirit must be confessed as truly God without reservation. Yet Father, Son and Spirit are not mere names of one divine Being.
To work out an agreement among Greek- and Latin-speaking bishops was not easy. They spoke of the one divine nature as physis, ousia, essence, substance, and of the three persons as prosopon, hypostasis, persona. In Latin substance is the same as hypostasis in Greek. No wonder they misunderstood each other! Excommunication and exile for many followed.
Even so, in the East the Cappadocians, Basil and the two Gregories, and in the West Augustine gave form to the doctrine of the Trinity. They distinguished between substance or essence, ousia, of the Godhead that is one and indivisible — and three forms of existence, hypostasis, as objective embodiments of one divine essence which constitutes a "Person." Defending the doctrine against tri-theism, they insisted that in operation the Godhead is one "not as harmony but as a single agency;" and the "Persons" are one in being; Son and spirit are both derived, but derived eternally from the Father. Relationship in mutuality and equality became the sine qua non of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Augustine enriched the doctrine by many images through which he interpreted the Trinity. The mind, its knowledge of itself and its love of itself is a human trinity, also "of one substance." So are memory, understanding and will. Augustine’s most remembered image is Love, Beloved, Love itself. All his pictures speak of co-equal, mutual relatedness.
I may have said more than you ever wanted to hear about the Trinity, and we will move on presently. But we still need to consider how are we, this late in time, this far from Jerusalem, but also from Greece and Rome, to speak of the triune God. You recall the Chinese convert who said: Honorable Father—I understand; honorable Son — I understand. Honorable bird I do not understand. Just what do we or do we not understand?
Theology is a human activity. It attempts to see the invisible, to speak the unutterable. It uses dialectics analogies and metaphor as it speaks of the Divine. It contemplates the mystery in agony and adoration. Thinking of worship, the first and last context of theology, we consider how do we stand, how do we think and speak in the presence of God? How do we address God? How do we speak to God? Worship is a very serious matter.
In theology, we need to have a sense of lightness. Whatever we discover we better take with a pinch of salt. Theology requires humor at our own expense. Above all it requires awareness of the boundaries. Do we know what we are talking about? Knowledge of the boundaries is necessary because the subject matter, the field of study, is God. We must be careful.
Recall the Isaiah quote in Professor Terrien’s opening words, "thou art a God who hidest thyself." Luther spoke of "Deus revelatus" and "Deus abscunditus," the revealed God and the hidden God. Even after revelation, the Divine in itself remains hidden. Have you ever been surprised by your mother, or spouse, or child, or friend? People with whom you shared your life, who may have been "open books" to you, do or say the unexpected. You did not really know them, something remained hidden in them. If that can happen among human beings, is not that a warning?
"God cannot be comprehended by us except as far as he accommodates himself to our standard." (Calvin, Com. Ez 9:3,4) "For since he is himself incomprehensible, he assumes when he wishes to manifest himself to [women and] men, those works by which he may be known." (Com. Gn.3:8) "God in his greatness can by no means be fully comprehended by our minds. ...God accommodates to our measure what he testifies of himself." (Com. Ro. 1:19) "He accommodates himself to our capacity in addressing us." (Com. 1 Cor. 2:17)
Accommodation, the recurring term, refers "to the process by which God reduces or adjusts to human capacities what he wishes to reveal of the infinite mysteries of his being...." (E. Dowey, The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology, p. 3)
The essence of God is unknown and inaccessible to us and all speculation is blasphemy, according to our tradition. We do have knowledge of God, however, in both creation and revelation. As we just heard from Calvin and one of his best interpreters, Professor Dowey.
One may wonder how the Trinitarian doctrine would be built, if the problems arose in the 16th century. It would still be the Father-Son-Holy Spirit, to be sure, but the area of concern would be different. In Calvin’s view it is not the being or essence of God that we know — the concern from Nicea to Chalcedon—but the work, power, and will of God, in as far as it is directed toward us.
God "is shown to us not as [God] is in himself, but as [God] is toward us: so that this recognition of [God] consists more in living experience than in vain and high-flown speculation." (Inst. I.x.2.) How then do we know the Trinity? Calvin says, by revelation. Revelation in Scripture does not contradict but adds to revelation in creation. It adds teaching about the Trinity.
We know what we need to know to live for the benefit of our neighbors and to the glory of God. What else would we need to know?
Gender and the Trinity
Western languages show three ways of dealing with gender.
- Languages that use no gender: The third person singular distinguishes between a person and a thing. The person can be male or female, but the pronoun is the same.
- Languages that carry grammatical gender, such as the biblical languages, as well as Latin, French, German, where all nouns have gender. When spoon, fork, knife have gender, gender is watered down.
- Languages that equate gender with sex, where only persons, not nouns, are given gender, as in English. These are the most sexist languages.
We may look at gender of some relevant terms in Scripture. In the New Testament ho theos, God, is masculine; to pneuma, Spirit, is neuter; ho logos, Word, is masculine; e sophia, Wisdom, is feminine. In Hebrew Ruah, Spirit, Torah, Law; Hokmah, Wisdom; Shekinah, Divine Presence; all are feminine.
Why then did gender become such a burden? Surely this is not a matter of language, but the misuse of language that elevates the male — as closer to the Divine than the female is. It is patriarchal domination that can disregard that Jesus and all his disciples were Jews, while remembering only that they were male persons. Consistency would require that not only women but also Gentiles be treated differently. Denied ordination? To insist that only those who physically resemble Jesus (Roman Catholic Church) or only men (Southern Baptists) are called to the ministry raises the question of whether we speak of a fertility cult with specific requirements.
I have no doubt that even if we find and accept non-gender specific, relational forms for the Trinity, women could still be put down. But at least, it will not be with reference to God. Women, who raised the role of gender, reintroduced another note to the discussion, one the church has long known and forgotten: relationship. All life is relating. Our life started by our mother and father coming together. Our life as fetus depends on relating very closely to the placenta in our mother’s womb then, as babies, to our mother’s breast. Relationship is the introduction to life. Realizing this, the early church spoke of the life of the Trinity in two ways. It spoke of it as perichoresis, literally, "dance around," referring to the movement, energy, and relationships within the Godhead. Recall Rublev’s icon of the Three sitting around a table, together representing the Trinity. It is great in depicting relationship — but they are sitting, not dancing.
The second term they used, Economic Trinity (from oikos, house, home, inhabited world and nomos, law, management of household/world), speaks of ordering the right relationship between both God and the whole creation and between the different aspects of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Women have already helped by recalling the attention of the church to these relational aspects of the Trinity within as well as in creation. What else do we need to do? We need to remind the church of Augustine’s metaphor of the Trinity — Love, Beloved, Love itself — non-sexist, intimately relational and DANCING. Also, we need to draw attention to one of the essential teachings: equality and mutuality — non-hierarchical relations within the divine. A major task before our church is to teach what is revealed in Scripture about the Trinity. The first person of the Trinity is spoken of as Creator, also as Father. We use Father, we are told because Jesus taught us to say it. Although he taught us to say "Abba" — Daddy — or Mommy (Prof. Joachim Jeremias). And, of course, we cannot change Scripture. But we do. Every time the text says "Yahweh," we put in "LORD," in line with our older brothers and sisters, the Jewish people. I am not advocating we forget "Father" or rewrite Scripture, but we need to know that we, women, are locked in and not out by revelation. We are to recall that God created in God’s own image male and female (Gn 1:27), thus God contains and transcends male and female and is pictured with both masculine and feminine attributes and activities in Scripture.
In the widely shared Presbyterian statement of faith, the Westminister Confession, we affirm:
There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection.. invisible, without body,
parts or passions... (Book of Confessions, 6.011)
The second person of the Trinity lived as a man in the historical Jesus. Some New Testament scholars suggest that the gospels present Jesus as identical with, or as a child of Sophia-Wisdom. According to these scholars, this teaching was dropped in favor of identifying Jesus with the Logos (Jn 1), because the masculinity of the Logos was seen as a helpful substitute for "the awkward feminine figure." That may be so, I leave it open. Also, Jesus may represent both Sophia and the Logos.
More amazing to me is that, with one exception (Jn. 1:30), Jesus is always referred to as anthropos (human) and not aner (man or male). His title Son of Man also uses anthropos. God in Christ became one of us, representing women and men. Let me share with you a deeply loved poem of Denise Levertov in "A Door in the Hive."
On the Mystery of the Incarnation
It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly failure
to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother, the Word
What do we mean when we speak of Father and Son? To rule out subordination within the Divine, theologians, starting with Origen in the second century, taught that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are coeternal. The Father is "unbegotten," the Son is eternally "begotten," there was no time when the Son was not. Just as in Origen’s analogy of the sun and its rays, where one cannot say the sun preceded the rays, they are simultaneous, so with God the Father and God the Son. Clearly then, when we say Father, we do not mean father, and saying Son, we do not mean son. In these uniquely used terms — Father, Son — gender uniquely disappears.
The third person of the Trinity — feminine in Hebrew, neuter in Greek, yet nevertheless in historical church practice referred to as "he" — is the most neglected member. To address this neglect, as well as some of our problems in the PC(U.S.A.), we can appeal to Calvin, a truly "Trinitarian" theologian. We have time only for brief references to two areas where we note the activities of the Spirit: Scripture and the sacraments. In spite of "orthodox" insistence on the inspiration of Scripture, I am convinced with Prof Dowey — and just about all European Reformed theologians — that "there is no independent doctrine of inspiration in Calvin’s Institutes. Rather, the present revelation in the life of the believer is the theological peg upon which the teaching about inspiration hangs." (E. Dowey, op.cit. p.90)
We cannot by reason convince anyone that God speaks through the Scripture. We need to be persuaded and convinced by the Holy Spirit. "The same Spirit ... who has spoken through the mouth of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us ..." (Inst. I. vii.4). Scripture becomes the word of God for us through the work of the Holy Spirit. That is a different way of looking at Scripture than some are painting in our tradition. The Westminister Confession agrees with other Reformed Confessions, saying:
... We acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word . . . (6.006)
For Calvin, the operation of the Spirit is seen in the sacraments, also. "Word and sacraments confirm our faith when they set before our eyes the good will of our heavenly Father toward us. The Spirit confirms it when by engraving this confirmation in our minds .... makes it effective. (IV. xiv. 10)
That is why we pray over the waters at baptism.
"Pour out your Spirit upon us and upon this water, that this font may be your womb of new birth." (Book of Common Worship)
And at the Table we recite the prayer of consecration before the distribution of the elements.
pour out your Holy Spirit upon us
and upon these your gifts of bread and wine,
that the bread we break
and the cup we bless
may be the communion of the body and blood of Christ.
By your Spirit make us one with Christ,
that we may be one with all who share this feast,
united in ministry in every place.
As this bread is Christ’s body for us,
send us out to be the body of Christ in the world.
(Book of Common Worship)
How do we speak about the Trinity in preaching and worship? I do not pretend to special wisdom. Karl Barth taught us that "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" is the name of God and therefore unchangeable. He has been challenged ever since.
Women began to speak of Creator-Redeemer-Sanctifier. Many are pleased, but it is a functional description (and even I am more than my functions); it is not integrally related and separates the divine activities. Mother-Lover-Friend (Sally McFague, Models of God) has been offered. This is truly relational, but few congregations would accept it. Likewise, Elizabeth Johnson speaks of the "The natural coinherence, the dancing around together of Spirit, Wisdom and Mother; or of mutual Love, Love from Love and unoriginate Love; or The Three Divine Persons." We may not be able to use any of these for benediction, but we may use it for teaching; and we all agree with Johnson that, "Divine nature exists as an incomprehensible mystery of relation." (She Who Is, pg. 227)
Other alternatives for the Trinity are still forthcoming:
- Maker/creator, Christ/Jesus, Holy/Spirit
- Creator, Savior, Healer
- Source, Servant, Guide
- Three in One, One in Three
The British theologian and hymn writer Brian Wren offers:
- Spirit given unity, revealing God,
- forever One,
- whose nature is Community
Baptism seals our belonging to God’s covenant community. Baby girls and boys, or women and men, are baptized, and this sacrament replaces the covenant sign of Israel, which was administered only to men. The community of the new covenant in Christ’s blood is open to women and men. How do we call on the name of God in this rite is the main question.
Baptism "in the name of Jesus" or "in the name of Christ" was used in the Western church until the 13th century, and is still used by some Pentecostal churches. Ruth Duck considers a variety of possible wordings:
"(Name) I baptize you in the name of Jesus Christ and the power and authority of the triune God." Some Presbyterians, with the laying on of hands after the act of baptism add: "And may the love
of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you." (Interview with Prof. Horace Allen.)
The Riverside Church formula: "(Name) I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God, Mother of us all." This wording points to the writings of Julian of Norwich and appeals to many today. Ruth Duck suggests instead of Mother, "Sister of us all."
An Anglican, David Holeton, proposed baptismal interrogation — which we all use to some extent — as an alternative to the declaration of the Trinitarian formula. "Do you believe in God, creator of heaven and earth? Do you believe in the Child/Son of God, Jesus Christ..."
The interrogative alternative has been approved by various people, but in most cases it is still followed by a declaratory statement. Prof Schussler-Fiorenze proposes this form:
You have been baptized into Jesus Christ
You are now a child of God
You have put on Christ.
There is no longer Jew or Greek
There is no longer slave or free,
There is no longer male or female
for we are all one.
Western churches, having long used the interrogative affirmation of the Trinitarian faith in baptism, may agree to some change on those lines: but the Eastern church has struggled for Trinitarian orthodoxy for centuries — and all through the centuries has insisted on the
(Name) I baptize you in the name of God, Source of Love
In the name of Jesus Christ, love incarnate
In the name of the Holy Spirit, love’s power.
(Name) I baptize you in the name of God the Father Mother
In the name of Jesus Christ, God incarnate
And of the Spirit, God ever-present.
How do we call on the name of God in administering baptism? Ecumenical agreements, some formal, others assumed, require the Trinitarian declaration to be used. We baptize "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Baptismal rites varied through the ages and vary now, but the formula is still required. While most churches do not recognize each others’ ministry, they accept each others’ baptism. Therefore, any change requires ecumenical agreement, and that takes time. We had better start the ecumenical conversation without delay.
In the meanwhile, we have a lot to do. We have responsibility as teachers in this church. We have been trained to "read, learn, and inwardly digest" and teach. Rephrasing alone is not sufficient. We must teach meaning and inter-relations. We must voice longings, and celebrate fulfillments.
I want you to hear some words about the meaning of baptismal water — this is what I mean by teaching. It comes from A New Catechism: Catholic Faith for Adults (p. 244). We also refer to it as the Dutch Catechism, which is where it originates. Listen for the word:
. . . at the Easter vigil the baptismal water is . . . consecrated to its sacred purpose. Water is the element used in baptism. The prayerful chant of the Easter vigil goes right through the whole of Scripture to meditate the tremendous significance attached to this element, from the primeval waters over which God’s creative Spirit passed, through the floods of the deluge and of the Red Sea, to the water which flowed from the side of Jesus.
The liturgy pauses to reflect on this element. And modern psychology has disclosed once more that it is one of the most fruitful symbols in the soul of each [one]. Modern science has discovered that all life on earth came out of this element. (In primeval times, all life, ours too, was in the sea.) Modern obstetrics has shown that the human embryo is born from the amniotic fluid, and that this fluid has the same composition as sea-water. Our life comes from water.
This, the most motherly of all elements has been set aside by God to be the efficacious sign of our heavenly rebirth. "May the Holy Spirit descend upon this water, which has been prepared that [one] may be born again."