Summary: After considering some reasons why the Trinity is not always central in our tradition, discussing how the Trinity shapes liturgical substance.
‘Glory be to God the Father’, sings the church, ‘glory be to God the Son, glory be to God the Spirit, great Jehovah, Three in One’. What is this? we ask—praise to three gods? No, praise to one God in three persons. This is the God whom Christians worship—God in three persons. At the heart of the Christian faith is the revealed mystery of the Trinity.
Over the last few weeks we’ve been considering this revealed mystery. There is one God: the Father is God, the Son is God and the Spirit is God. Each of these persons share the divine nature and are fully God. Yet the Father is not the Son, nor is the Son the Holy Spirit. There are three persons, irreducibly different, co-eternal and co-equal, forever existing in perfect unity.
There is no doubt that the doctrine of the Trinity is the glory of the Christian faith. So if by some chance three weeks ago you were not convinced, I hope now that you are convinced. For God’s essential nature is one of trinity (the immanent trinity), and he operates in this world according to this divine pattern (the economic trinity). And so, says one commentator, ‘the dogma of the Holy Trinity is not only a doctrinal form, but a living Christian experience which is constantly developing […] There is no true Christian life, apart from knowledge of the Trinity’ (Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church).
This is why we labour to understand this doctrine. For there is no true Christian life apart from knowledge of the Trinity. There is no true life outside our knowledge of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. God is not remote and obscure, rather he is personal and knowable. He knows Paul and Winsome and Mary and Bob and Martin and Joan. He knows all of us. The triune God thrusts himself into our painful world and says, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6:35).
The doctrine of the Trinity leads us to praise God. ‘Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, unto ages of ages. Amen’. And as we praise God it is natural that we want to know more about him so we can praise him further, and this leads us back to theology. And so theology and doxology are never far from one another as we join with the heavenly hosts, ‘Great and marvellous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed’ (Rev 15:3–4).
It’s therefore a tragedy that many in the Christian community think about the Trinity more as a mathematical problem than the heartbeat of the Christian life. There are two main reasons for this situation, the first, the broader tradition in which we find ourselves, and second, the pressure of contemporary worship.
If you flunked out at school, consider yourself back in school again —this time for a short history lesson. We are part of the Western church and the Trinity has been sadly neglected in our tradition. There are historical reasons for this situation. Most theologians point to Augustine in the 4th century who stressed the unity of God over and above the diversity of God in three persons. While people are good at relating to other people, we are naturally not so good at relating to ‘a thing’. And the fruit of Augustine’s thinking was the portrayal of God as more a single, impersonal essence rather than as persons we can relate to.
Augustine also conveyed the idea that the Spirit was the bond of love between the Father and the Son. As though the Spirit was the glue that held the Father and the Son together. This analogy tends to downplay the importance of the Spirit. And so the downgrading of the Spirit, the emphasis on God as an impersonal essence, meant that the Trinity became increasingly divorced from the life and worship of the Western Church.
This is the broad tradition we have inherited.
Now some of us maybe surprised to hear this assessment. For surely the great joy of being Christian is knowing and enjoying God. I’m pleased to say that for many of us God is anything other than remote. We love him and read his Word and relate to him in prayer. So Augustine has failed to influence us in this area.
But we are not representative of all the Western Church. Even here, perhaps, there are some of us with a remote view of God. One doesn’t need to travel too far to find people who relate to God more as a callous schoolmaster, someone more as one to be feared rather than someone who can be known at a personal level. Even more so in Europe, where scholars such as Ulrich Luz lament the spiritual vacuum. He says that people ‘want someone or something […] to touch them and give them authority or clear direction in life and provide them with a hope that transcends this hopeless world’ (U. Luz, Matthew in History, 12). The broader religious trend in Europe is to see God as impersonal and remote from the experiences of daily life.