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Reclaiming The Trinity


Reclaiming the Trinity

The Trinity is not an optional “extra” to God. It is the very nature of God as revealed to us in Scripture.

By Charles Wiley

Usually the church takes up a theological issue only when there is great controversy — a time when a lack of consensus on an issue embroils the church in an intractable debate. The doctrine of the Trinity is a pressing issue for contemporary Presbyterians for precisely the opposite reason: we are losing the Biblical account of God without controversy, without debate. Often the Trinity is taught in confirmation class or in Sunday school (for children and adults) more as a mathematical problem to be solved than the living reality of God.

What we really believe

When dramatic events occur in our lives, we find out what we really believe. When our hopes are crushed, or when we reflect on an enormous tragedy such as the tsunami, we discover which parts of the creeds and confessions we recite in church are essential to our lives. What guides our faith in such situations? How do we bring comfort and hope to others? What do we really believe?

The Apostle Paul might have said: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who consoles us in all our affliction, for just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so our consolation is abundant through Christ, sealed in our hearts through the power and constant presence of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 1:3–5, 21–22).

John Calvin might have said: “Christ is not only the pledge of our adoption, but God also gives us the Holy Spirit as a witness to this adoption, through whom we may freely cry aloud, ‘Abba, Father.’ Whenever we are distressed, remember to ask for the presence of the Spirit who will enable us to pray boldly” (Institutes, III.20.37).

But we might say: “Be comforted, for God is always with you.”

Our contemporary version is certainly true, but it betrays an ability to account for the biggest events and issues in our lives without reference to the Triune God—to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

To be fair, I often hear Presbyterians talk about “following Jesus” and “listening to the Spirit.” But far rarer are references to all three persons of the Trinity in an integrated way.

Functional Unitarianism

In ordinations that take place in almost every Presbyterian congregation, elders, deacons and ministers are asked: Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Have you heard anyone answer “no” recently? Neither have I.

We haven’t rejected the Trinity outright; we simply do not seem to need it any more. If we can express our faith using only “God,” we have become functional Unitarians. Apparently, we are able to talk about our faith through simple appeal to God: God loves you, God forgives you, God will be with you. The “Gracious God” we address in prayer is all we need.

Given the time, energy and controversy devoted to the Trinity in the church’s history, how could we let it slip away? Given its centrality in all the creeds and in the faith of the church, how could we ignore the Trinity? There are at least three contributing reasons:

1. Nothing between us and God

One of the chief characteristics of American religion is a conviction that nothing stands between us and God. Harry Truman said, “I’m a Baptist because I think that sect gives the common man the shortest and most direct approach to God.” We are Harry Trumans run amok.

People today have moved beyond rejection of the church and doctrinal systems to ambivalence about the specific need for the work of the Son and the Spirit. We are “spiritual, but not religious,” finding God within ourselves.

When we are god, we certainly do not need the mediation of the Son or the continuing work of the Spirit to connect to the divine presence. Even when we speak about “the Spirit,” we are using an alternative term for our generalized understanding of God.

In contrast, the Christian faith affirms that the work of all three persons of the Trinity is essential to our relationship to God. It is the grace, love and communion of this one God in three persons that draws us into the divine life. We cannot speak of this God without recognizing that Trinity is not an optional “extra” to God, but is the very nature of God as revealed to us in Scripture. To lose the vocabulary of the Trinity is to miss out on a full understanding of who God is.

We believe that the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ and the sanctifying and healing work of the Holy Spirit are necessary for us to be reconciled to God. Necessary — not merely helpful or encouraging. And it is one and the same God who created us, who saves us and who continues to live with us.

God is indeed closer to us than our skin — the three-in-one and the one-in-three.

2. The challenge of pluralism

Another impulse toward functional Unitarianism draws from our growing realization of religious pluralism. We recognize that we share much with Jews and Muslims. These two faiths are closely related to our own but reject a Trinitarian notion of God. We are more aware than ever of the growing numbers of Hindus and Buddhists in our midst, not to mention Sikhs and various African religions.

Wouldn’t our lives be simpler if we didn’t have this three-fold God to explain? Wouldn’t we be one step closer to a unity with others who worship God? Don’t all people of faith worship the same God?

While understandable, this impulse does not serve us well. We confess faith in the Triune God because we believe this is who God truly is. We cannot dispose of the Trinity any more easily than we can dispose of our confession of God as the author of life.

Further, our partners in interfaith dialogue routinely tell us that honesty is essential for a true dialogue. They will sniff out our not-so-well-disguised implicit Trinitarianism, even while we think we are all talking about the same idea of God.

3. The language problem

We also tend toward functional Unitarianism because we are unsure of how to speak of the Triune God. Some object to using the gendered language of Father and Son in worship; others object to using any alternative language for God. These objections can lead to bland liturgical compromises that rob Scripture and tradition of their richness. Thus, the liturgies produced by many within the church abandon traditional Trinitarian language and substitute frequent repetition of an undifferentiated God.

The vast majority of Presbyterians agree with the 1985 General Assembly’s statement on the use of language in worship: “Our language about God should be as intentionally diverse and varied as is that of the Bible and our theological tradition.” Yet often we hear only, “God, God, God.” Attention to God as Trinity and to the words of Scripture and the tradition provide us with a more faithful vocabulary that is also richer and more varied than current practice.

Father, Son, Holy Spirit — and more

The language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, etched in Scripture and creed, remains indispensable for our efforts to speak faithfully of God. This is especially true regarding baptism in the name of the Triune God, one of the few things that connects Christian believers around the world.

“Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is a root out of which grows an even richer vocabulary of praise. Anchored by these ancient words, we are liberated to interpret, amplify and expand upon the ways of naming the Triune God most familiar to the church, rather than simply repeating the word “God” in prayer and liturgy. We are able to draw from the well of Scripture to enrich the ways we speak of God and to God.

This liberating approach also demands discipline. We cannot “pick one from column a, one from column b and one from column c,” as if any three terms can express Trinity. Are there “rules” to be followed, then? Yes. In the same manner that grammar rules help us to be clear about what we say, the rules of Trinitarian language help us to be faithful to what we believe.

In that spirit, I propose three rules:

  • The three terms must have an inner relationship.
  • The terms must either be personal or functional — the two should not be mixed.
  • Functional terms cannot replace personal terms, but can amplify and enrich our understanding of God.

A common Trinitarian substitute, Creator/Christ/Spirit, fails the first two tests. “Creator” is a functional description of the Godhead, one in which all three persons of the Trinity participate, yet Christ and Spirit are personal designations. This creates a theological error that violates the first rule: Is the first person the “Creator” of the second and third persons? That is surely not what we believe.

Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer is a wonderful description of the work of God on our behalf. It is Trinitarian in the sense that each person of the Trinity is involved in the functions of creation, redemption and sustaining us. But it cannot be understood to claim that one person of the Trinity is creator, a second redeemer and the third sustainer. It cannot substitute for personal language.

An expression of our deepest beliefs

It is essential that we work through the issues that threaten to rob us of Biblical faith. Worship is the key. The language of our prayers, hymns, doxologies and anthems shapes our faith as surely as it reflects our faith. We must pray and sing to the “one Triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.”

When we see the doctrine of the Trinity as an expression of our deepest beliefs, the best account of the reality of God revealed in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, we will begin to teach it, express it and live it.

You can help reclaim the Trinity

Consider being a part of reclaiming the doctrine of the Trinity by studying a draft paper, “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing,” prepared by a working group authorized by the 217th General Assembly (2000). Here is an excerpt:

In sovereign love God created the heavens and the earth and called and formed the people of Israel to be a light to all the nations. In costly grace the Lord Jesus Christ ministered among us and was crucified and raised for us and for our salvation. In transforming power the Holy Spirit renews and sanctifies us, draws us into new communion with God and each other, awakens our praise and worship, and equips us for the service of God in the world. The Triune God does all this through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit
(2 Corinthians 13:14).

… About this the church must have no doubt: The doctrine of the Trinity proclaims to us the very heart of God, made known to us and to the world in the self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ and poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

The full paper can be downloaded here.

Beyond ‘rock, paper, scissors’ theology

Undisciplined use of any three words to refer to the Trinity is a “rock, paper, scissors” theology — three, any three, will do. The Trinity is too vital to our faith for such laziness. Here are examples of ways to amplify and enrich our language of the Triune God. They are products of disciplined reflection, yet are vivid and rooted in Scripture. Note the inner relationships between the terms:

  • The One to Whom, the One by Whom, and the One in Whom we offer our praise
  • Speaker, Word and Breath
  • Overflowing Font, Living Water, Flowing River
  • Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-giving Womb
  • Our Sun, Ray and Warmth
  • Rock, Cornerstone and Temple
  • The Fire that Consumes, the Hammer that Breaks, the Storm that Melts Mountains

Can you envision them being used in your prayer life and in worship? Can you think of others?

This article originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of Presbyterians Today.