Canon Douglas Pratt
Have you ever wondered why it is that, in some quarters of the Muslim world, hostility towards Christians is so intense that it results in violent persecution? Is it just a matter of a clash of cultures, of civilisations? Or is it a consequence of post-colonial politics? Or is it, at root, theological issue; a measure of religious antipathy?
It is certainly not the case that a majority of Muslims manifest this antipathy; indeed there are very many who are quite positively disposed towards Christians, deriving this from the Qur’an and from the example and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. We are co-religionists; co-equally peoples of the Book or the religions of revelation, each with our own legitimate view of and response to, God. But equally the Qur’an makes clear there is only one God and objects to Christians who apparently believe in three gods.
From early on Muslims presumed, and many still do today, that the Christian Trinity equates to tri-theism. It does not, of course; but you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you took a naïve view of the Trinity as hinted at in the pages of the New Testament; and most certainly if you pay attention, especially today, to the language of many Christians.
We say ‘Trinity’; too often we ‘speak’ tri-theism: we speak of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, as three distinct, even independent, beings despite our creedal and doctrinal affirmations that state otherwise. And this is both heretical from the perspective of classical Christian doctrine, and apostasy from a strict Muslim perspective. So where these two clash directly, as they do in some contexts the outcome can be, quite literally, deadly. Loose theology, like loose lips in wartime, can be dangerous.
But it is not just in the arena of this particular interreligious encounter that a misrepresentation of the Christian trinitarian understanding of God raises problems. For just as difficulty in comprehending, let alone affirming, this doctrine was a factor in the relatively clean sweep Islam made of the former Christian heartlands of the Middle East and North Africa, so, too, today there are many born into the faith who have quietly dropped away because, in part at least, such doctrines as this are incomprehensible.
What does ‘Three in One’ mean, really? Does not the term ‘Trinity’ (the Threeness) imply three distinct beings of some kind? But Christianity is a monotheistic religion – so what is really believed, and why?
Trinity has ever meant ‘tri-unity’: the stress is not on the three; it is on the One. There is but one God; one divine reality. Yet the singularity of God does not mean the sort of conceptual simplicity that might parallel the physical simplicity of a single-cell amoeba or such-like. God is not a ‘monad’, to use technical philosophical language.
To be sure, the biblical narrative, especially that of the New Testament, speaks of three ‘actors’ or ‘identities’, all of whom are in some sense divine: God, understood as creator and ‘Father’; Jesus, clearly in some special relation to God, but also not identical to God the father; and the ‘Spirit’ of God as something other than either the Father or Jesus – who is regarded as the ‘son of God’. We encounter these in today’s lectionary.
The gospel refers to Jesus as a ‘teacher from God’ and uses the titles ‘Rabbi’ & ‘Son of Man’; Jesus is the ‘sent one’, sent for the purpose of salvation and in this regard the title ‘Son of God’ is used; and then there is an allusion to the Spirit. Paul’s letter to the Romans also references the ‘Spirit of God’ – and, spiritually, declares we are the children of God. The unifying dimension of Spirit transcends that of the flesh, with all its diversity and divisiveness.
In all this we are pointed to the relational dynamic that expresses the being, the reality, of God. And this is reinforced by the way in which the person of Jesus, the man born of Mary in Nazareth, has many different titles ascribed to him. Around this person – the incarnate Word of God – there swirls a complex relational dynamic. He not only manifests or represents something of the reality of God; he is the focus of a new way and manner of relationship between God and humanity; indeed, between the Creator and the created realm.
To gain insight and understanding for today, we need to delve a little into the past.
The first Christians claimed Jesus as the ‘Son of God’ and thereby the saviour of the whole world, not just the redeemer of a previously ‘chosen people’, the Jews. This meant both that a radical break with Judaism was inevitable and that the monotheistic basis of this faith would be questioned sooner or later.
And questioned it was. For, assuming the son of a god is also himself a divine being, did this mean that, in effect, Christians worshipped two gods. One senior (the father), one junior (his son)? This query did, indeed, become the focal question. The conundrum had to be resolved by the Christians.
Christianity evolved its distinctive trinitarian idea: God is not simply ‘One’, a static singularity, but a dynamic unity of three ‘somethings’, typically referred to as three ‘persons’; perhaps better understood as three ‘references of identity’ or three ‘locae of relational activity’.
Thus in the first instance a ‘binatarian’ view of God emerged: two co-eternal and co-equal identity referents, one being God the ‘Father’ and the other, God the ‘Son’; yet only one divine reality, one God, as such; not two separate gods.
Very quickly, however, a third element was added, an aspect that is referred to in the scriptures as, by implication, something other than either ‘Christ the Son’ or even ‘God the Father’, something that was referred to as ‘Spirit’. By this is generally meant the ongoing active agency of God in the form of a third ‘person’ or ‘locus’ of divine identity and activity, the Holy Spirit.
It has never been easy for Christianity to give a wholly satisfactory definition of the Trinity. It is, indeed, a doctrine born of the peculiar language and conceptual lens of a bygone era, and out of the particular experience of God given in uniquely Christian terms – God encountered as the ‘Father’ figure, the Creator, Generator, and so on; God encountered as the ‘Son’ or Christ figure; God encountered in terms of personal empowerment and spirituality as the ‘Holy Spirit’ figure.
Behind the doctrine there lies decades of debate and complex philosophical argument; and this continues. But it was two great councils of bishops and theologians, convened during the fourth century – the first at Nicea in 325CE, the second in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 381CE – that brought about the classic doctrinal resolution.
The classic doctrine of the Trinity effectively says that the One God has, or better ‘is’, three distinguishable, although totally interrelated and interconnected dimensions of the one divine realty. In modern English, they are called ‘persons’. In the original Greek they are ‘hypostases’; in Latin ‘personae’ – and neither connote what we today understand by the word ‘person’. It is little wonder that this doctrine is more often a stumbling block than a bridge to faith.
The Nicene resolution defining the nature of God yielded a formula that became the distinguishing mark of Christian orthodoxy – and a continuing theological conundrum ever since.
Yet beyond the principal defining doctrine of the Trinity, our Christian belief in God has many other dimensions to it. And belief in God embraces many philosophical terms of reference. On the one hand, God is the ‘Transcendent Other’; on the other, the ‘Immanent Presence’. God is at once the ‘Creator’ and the ongoing ‘Sustainer’ of all that is.
Importantly, philosophical and metaphysical subtlety of concept and doctrine are combined with a stress on the relational personhood of God: God is Love, God cares, God seeks human responsiveness, God wishes redemption, God offers help. These relational motifs have been rationally expressed through creedal formula such as the Trinitarian Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Trinity Sunday not only gives opportunity to reflect on the distinctive Christian understanding of God, it also marks the conclusion of the trinitarian dynamic of the first half of the liturgical year. For the Christian year begins with Advent and Christmas – the celebration of the God, the Father, who so cares for his creation that He sent into it a most personal and precious gift. This is followed by Lent and Easter where the focus is on God, the Son: the divine work of redemption. And lastly we have Pentecost, the festival of the comforting and empowering action of God, the Holy Spirit. The dynamic of God the Trinity is celebrated within the dynamics of the Christian liturgical calendar.
May the dynamism of our trinitarian God; Father, Son and Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; be ever our guide and strength.